April 13th, 2012

On Anonymity

Yesterday I encountered a blog whose comment section wasn’t linked up with Facebook or Disqus. It was just a pure email/display name system from years past – one where no one had any interest in tracking your activity across the entire interwebs. Putting in a display name that maybe wasn’t your full name – first and last – was totally OK. And so I put in an alias, and said my piece.

And it was great. Not because I was trolling or had ill intentions, but mostly because I felt like once again I could be free to say what I wanted — there wasn’t that tinge that I feel every time I press “send” on a social network, that this particular comment/tweet/whatever is going to be tied to my name forever and ever. Identity control is necessary in some ways, I get that. Spammers and trolls ruined it for everyone (I use Disqus here mostly to combat spam). For me though, I guess I want to be free to change my opinions sometimes without the digital paper trail.

The problem with most social networks is the assumption that your life is linear and that people are interested in accumulating their own personal histories in one single repository.

I just don’t buy it. I think that is facebook’s core error – this belief that the digital world is becoming increasingly identity-based rather than persona-based.

Identity isn’t singular.

In my mind this is one of the most pressing issues for maturing social networks – this idea that the network will need to adapt as identities shift and change. This was perhaps the root of some of the Instagram-Facebook-Acquisition animosity — that we were all so ready to create a new network where we felt free again, and the idea of merging it back is sort of sad and depressing, in the same way that forcing someone to hang out with their high school classmates again is a bummer. Jenna Wortham said it most eloquently: “The sale of Instagram brings a harsh reality into focus, the realization that the secret rooms or private spaces online where we can share, chit-chat and hang out with our friends are fading. The few safe havens that do exist are quickly being encroached upon or are next on the shopping list for a company like Google, Apple or Facebook.”

Maybe I am overly optimistic or naive, but I think privacy is one of those core emotions that we unknowingly fight to protect. It won’t disappear, though it will evolve. The rebellion against this notion of singular identity is coming – reinvention is simply too important to let fade away.

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  • Anonny Mouse

    good post, i agree :)

  • http://workpeek.com/ Edward

    Totally agree Amanda.  

    It was the acknowledgement that
    anonymity is sometimes the best course that shaped WorkPeek.com, a career Q&A startup I co-founded.  Having been a
    campus recruitment lead in my past life at a consulting firm, I noticed candidates often had burning questions they wanted to ask me but hesitated because of
    the nature of the question.  Some
    questions are better asked anonymously – compensation, job opportunities if you’re
    currently employed etc.  So when we
    launched our startup we decided that we didn’t want our users’ identities to be
    tied to their questions.

  • Joshua

    <quote>The few safe havens that do exist are quickly being encroached upon or are next on the shopping list for a company like Google, Apple or Facebook.</quote>
    There are a ton of “safe havens” that aren't going to be bought by the 3 companies you mentioned.

    Any site on the StackExchange network
    Anybody who decides to install phpBB
    IRC is still around and isn't dying any time soon. The same goes for simple e-mail lists.

    I think a look at the bigger picture is in order. There is more to life than Facebook and Google+. Follow Eben Moglen's advise, delete your account.

    You'll feel better when you do. 

    Here is the reference to Eben Moglen I was talking about:

  • Asdf

    for the right to troll some might say.

    no seriously love your post.

  • Tokiko

    Anonymity is not identical to psuedonymity. 

    moot, the administrator of the largest English-language anonymous forum has some interesting stuff to say about Anonymity, the Internet, and identity. See what he has to say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

    I find this article rather interesting, too: http://wakaba.c3.cx/shii/

  • Alex

    I totally agree. In this age of real identity, there's something to be said for allowing anonymity. I think forums are a great example of this.

    “I use Disqus here mostly to combat spam”

    The default WordPress comment form (which is anonymous) combined with the Akismet anti-spam plugin that comes bundled with WordPress should work equally as well if not better than Disqus's spam prevention. ;)

  • Forlackofawittyname

    I think another point not hit on by this blog entry is that anonymity allows for a 'pure' view of the text or a 'purer' form of expression. That is to say, it is not tainted by the messenger by originating from a social class or other comparable group-identity. It is in some sense non-hierarchical and does impart an implicit authority due to simple authorship.

  • Forlackofawittyname

    er… that last line should read 'does *not* impart'.

  • http://www.paranoidbull.com Davealevine

    Maybe we just need to reform our conception of identity to recognize the image of uniformity exists. In the future it is all transparent. We just need to be more comfortable embracing real humanity rather than bs narratives of linear lives…because that is what is true.

  • http://www.stealthmode.com hardaway

    I think the issue of anonymity is a totally different one from the issue of identity. Spammers and trolls make anonymity and aliases annoying. But I agree that one ought to be able to discard some of the comments of one's past without penalty. It isn't true, however; look at the problems political candidates are having. The internet isn't the only source, because video captures what the candidates have said and reveals their changes. Those changes are alternatively known as flipflops or evolutions or lies. Those are all loaded terms. They're probably just changes of opinion.

  • Peace

    Completely agreed. The whole “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear” mentality is unfortunately becoming more and more popular.

    There are scary sides of the internet that many of us do not want to know.

    What I choose to say is that there are people out there that still want to maintain a connection to the wonderful world around them. Introverts, victims of crimes such as extortion, threats, and so on. Are a group that is constantly forgotten about — I really hope this comment is a reminder to anyone that people like that still want to have a voice and constant tracking makes it incredibly difficult.

    I really hope that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater when deciding which privacy laws will be passed in the near future. #CISPA

  • http://anzman.blogspot.com charlieanzman

    I've used Disqus over the years for the same reason (not to mention ongoing attention and for lack of a better way of putting it, technological excellence!).  The sites that REALLY irk me (including some major tech blogs) are the ones that have moved to Facebook comments thinking the quality will be better with 'real identities'.  When I do go to Facebook, my privacy features are now locked down tight for a variety of reasons.  THOSE sites (Yes, including TechCrunch) are missing out on valuable contributors.

  • Guest

    No personal data, no shopping list:

  • Guest

    You sound like a cunt.

  • ZoubIWah

    then again ur blog is on disqus.

  • timrpeterson

    here's my Disqus comment:

    I completely agree!

    p.s. I would never disagree because I want people to like me and know that they will see this comment and if i say something too stongly negative, will stalk my Disqus and ultimately Twitter, etc profile and do god knows what with that information

  • Charles Brun

    Agree 100% with you. You should listen to this podcast which talks about how we all have multiple social roles that are fluid: 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663516778 Cinque Mcfarlane-Blake

    Great post! I'm working on a website with a couple of my friends because i don't like the direction social networking platforms have taken over the years. I feel that the user should have some control and knowledge of whats going on which is all to lacking from most users from facebook. So i figured the best way to change things is to make something of my own and share it with people haha.

  • http://www.mailbait.info/ MailBait.info

    there is no reasonable assumption for privacy at mailbait.info – don't use that site if you don't intend to share your email address.

  • Oliver

    did you read past the first paragraph?

  • http://www.webdesignbizz.com/ Template Design

    Excellent post. I want to thank you for this informative read. Keep up
    your great work.

  • Sheffield

    welcome to the internet, amanda

  • http://www.webstatsart.com/ Webstats Art

    The chance to forget things is part of humanity. These social networks don't understand the need for this. There is a time and a place to probe people, measure and evaluate but not forever. Some people want to hide once in a while – call it tranquility if you like

  • http://www.nextlevelofnews.com Steffen Konrath

    How would you explain the difference between “identity” and “persona” Amanda?
    Steffen Konrath
    Future of Journalism

  • Redrum

    Agreed. Handles and nicknames often work well on the net. Lots of respectable and civilized forums use nothing more than handles. Public display of something like a comment, should be the user's choice. If Stephen King can write several books under a psudonym, then I sure as hell can write a comment on a blog without committing to a published real name.

    Real identity enforcement is in the service provider's interest more than anyone else's. The value of associating advertising to real individuals would be worth more, as the user's data is mined and tracked wherever they go. It is us users whose real names should be allowed to be hidden from Google for example, to protect us from years of data-mined association beyond our control, and rampant cross-publishing of our content without our permission.

    Even this “anonymous” Disquis account I have here is annoying how it ties my contributions to a chain of previous comments I made on different subjects in different places. Context should be my right as a commenter to protect and isolate. I never wanted to sign up with yet another company to “manage” my online opinions. It's in Disqus's interest to link me to historical postings and make that link public. It's not in my interest at all.

  • dbakerweb

    As long as advertisers are the real paying users of our social networks there will be immense pressure on the network owners and investors to convince us to be public and identifiable. We have to learn to pay for our internet services. Privacy and anonymity will follow.

  • Asdf


  • Asdf

    I wholeheartedly agree!

  • http://amandapeyton.com amanda peyton

     Have tried Wordpress' comment system with Akismet and unfortunately the spam was still an issue.

  • http://amandapeyton.com amanda peyton

     Yeah I think this is one of the core points – that there's a core human desire to be able to reinvent yourself/hide/etc.

  • http://dogstard.wordpress.com/ dogstard

    On the Internet nobody knows you're a Dog?

  • http://www.webstatsart.com/ Webstats Art

    Becoming invisible for a while is a gift that some people need right now. May those who truly seek anonymity enjoy the benefits of being a nobody for a while.

  • http://jivebay.com/ jivebay

    There are still lots of blogs like that, you make it sound like it was 20 years ago. I don't even require a email address or name for comments my blog, granted its not a big name site, but I rarely get spam coming through.

  • http://www.gowebbaby.com/ WordPress Designer

    I agree.

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  • http://www.lg-motion.co.uk/ motion control systems

    well I think that on disqus, you can see the other person's profile, with the email ID, and other information…

  • http://twitter.com/apluralist Rob Williams

    Yeah, the share buttons at the end of this made me think the author was completely unconscious.

  • http://twitter.com/apluralist Rob Williams

    Which is sad because I agree that this follow everyone across everything mentality is going to end badly for the purveyors..

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    I 'm very glad to observe that users are actually writing about this issue in such a creative way, showing us all different sides to it. You are a great blogger. Please keep it up.

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