If you Google my name, you’ll find there’s an Eliza Kern listed on a bunch of social networks. There’s an Eliza Kern on Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, along with a whole host of others I can’t even remember. For most of them, it’s pretty clear that those Eliza Kerns are actually me — they either have my photo attached, or somehow indicate the person who controls that account.
But what if I wanted to go online and post some thoughts or ideas that wouldn’t be associated with my identity? What if I was secretly a cat person (the horror) and wanted to talk about my love of cats, or had a really embarrassing disease I wanted to talk about with other people? These might not be things I’d tweet about. But maybe I’d head to the new anonymous social network called Social Number, which is trying to give people a voice online without an associated identity.
Internet anonymity has a long and controversial history — it’s a unique feature of the web that has provided additional levels of safety for whistle-blowers and human rights advocates, but it’s also given rise to the internet troll and a host of other despicable behaviors that come from expression without much fear of consequence. And as the New York Times pointed out, it’s nothing new.
Currently, anonymity is most common on internet forums and within comment sections of websites like Gawker, where allowing people to post without their identities has become controversial, as my colleague Mathew Ingram has written about extensively. Mainstream social networks have generally discouraged anonymity. Facebook has pushed to get users to connect with their real names and appear in Facebook search as themselves, with an obvious benefit to the company as it works to advertise against that content and control your digital identity. But for political dissidents or people whose workplaces or families disapprove of their political leanings or sexual orientations, the benefits of real names are less clear.
On Social Number, which launched in December and already has thousands of registered users according to the company, individuals sign up and pick a long number that becomes their identity on the network, which doesn’t rely on names or usernames like other sites. Users can then post about topics and have discussions ranging from reducing your carbon footprint to dealing with a bad boss to atheism. The CEO of the company, who goes by MK and declined to provide his full name citing anonymity concerns, said the anonymity is crucial to the site’s success:
“Taboo discussions are popular. They’re afraid if they go to Facebook and type in their political affiliations it’ll get them in trouble with their boss. Here they can critique anything,” he said. “They can talk about things like substance abuse and don’t have to reveal their identity. Although surprisingly a lot of innocent topics as well, like cooking and Valentine’s Day.”
4chan, the internet message board that’s created many of the most popular memes and internet activist movements, has always thrived on a culture where users can remain anonymous. In fact, 4chan founder Christopher Poole gave a TED talk on the value of anonymity in building an internet culture. But in contrast to 4chan, or sites like Reddit, which can seem like the wild west of the internet built through message boards, Social Number focuses more on questions and answers, like Quora, and individual identities, like Facebook and others.
But the strangest part of the site? Users can purchase t-shirts or business cards with their Social Numbers on them, and then host meet-ups or parties where they arrive wearing their t-shirts or handing out cards, in an attempt to create anonymity in real life while talking to new and interesting people. Although obviously wearing a t-shirt with your internet identity would work better for curious college students than political dissidents.
“It’s the next physical version of the virtual world,” he said.