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Summary:

Apps and services like Secret and Whisper have re-ignited the debate over the value of anonymous or pseudonymous behavior online, but despite the prevalence of trolls and bullying the benefits of anonymity arguably outweigh the disadvantages

When it comes to online behavior, some contentious issues have been around at least as long as the consumer internet itself. One of the most explosive of these topics is anonymity, and the alleged benefits or disadvantages of the fact that on the internet — as the New Yorker famously put it in 1993 — no one knows you’re a dog. The popularity of anonymous apps such as Secret has propelled those issues to the forefront once again, and re-ignited the debate over whether the value of anonymous behavior outweighs the risks.

As I’ve written here a number of times before, I believe online anonymity or pseudonymity has substantial value, even though it is arguably to blame for troll-like behavior in blog comments and other forums such as Reddit or 4chan. Much like the internet itself, anonymity is a tool that can be used for good or ill, but I believe we gain more than we lose by allowing it to occur.

That’s not to say anonymity needs to be a free-for-all. There are a number of ways of ensuring that it doesn’t become so, from the technical methods described by Canadian entrepreneur Austin Hill (co-founder of an early online-identity provider called Zero Knowledge) in a recent post to the kind of advice that Anil Dash discussed in a post about internet comments — namely, that we are all responsible in some sense for this kind of behavior.

Encouraging the worst of human behavior?

The latest iteration of this debate seems to have started when Secret closed a new funding round of $8.6 million last week, and some venture investors — including Upfront Ventures partner Mark Suster, former YouTube executive-turned Homebrew VC Hunter Walk and Andreessen Horowitz founder Marc Andreessen — responded by discussing their moral and ethical concerns in backing these kinds of services.

Andreessen (who made a point of saying that he wasn’t discussing one company in particular) said during a Twitter discussion that one of his fears is that anonymous apps and services can lead to the worst kind of voyeurism, and that while this can generate large numbers of users — and theoretically lots of value for investors — it can also cause pain for those who are bullied or singled out for offensive behavior, a point that a number of other commenters also made.

For his part, Suster said that he had no qualms about avoiding an investment like Secret, because he believes that the app encourages bad behavior — and also does too little to moderate that behavior via rules such as the flagging of abuse (Secret is now reportedly warning users about potential defamation). As he put it, such apps encourage the kind of negative responses we see on the highway, where drivers are effectively anonymous, a phenomenon known as “disinhibition.”

“It’s gossip. Slander. Hateful. Hurtful. It’s everything the Valley claims to hate about LA but seemingly are falling over themselves at cocktail parties to check 5 times a night. We can do better.”

Allows many to speak who otherwise wouldn’t

There’s no question that Secret and Whisper — and other similar apps and services — can lead to anonymous bullying, and that this can have real-world consequences. Yik Yak is doing its best to block access by young users for just that reason. We’ve seen similar kinds of accusations in the past, including some involving Formspring — which ultimately failed in part because of bad publicity surrounding suicides — as well as Juicy Campus and Ask.fm.

At the same time, however, even Suster notes in his post that anonymity allows users who might otherwise never be heard to express themselves — those who are gay, or overweight, or fighting depression, or who belong to some other marginalized group — and that this arguably outweighs the legions of trolls. One user catalogued just this kind of interaction on Secret:

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4chan founder Chris “Moot” Poole has written and spoken a number of times about the value of anonymity on forums like his, despite the views of critics who believe that 4chan and Reddit are cesspools that encourage and even celebrate the worst of human nature. And I for one think he is right to focus on the benefits — after all, as Reddit GM Erik Martin noted in a recent interview with me, much of the “real world” involves what is essentially anonymous behavior as well, and yet we still see far more good behavior than we do bad.

“For me, Reddit is an example of how human beings in general are co-operative and reasonable and selfless, because if that wasn’t the case, it just wouldn’t work. If everyone urinated in post-office boxes on the corner, it would only take a couple of thousand people to do that — or to decide to park their car on the interstate — and the nation would be brought to its knees. But they don’t.”

Managing anonymity can be done

There are communities and services that have been able to manage anonymity and pseudonymity without degenerating into sheer chaos — as venture investor Bijan Sabet notes about Tumblr (a company he was an early investor in), founder David Karp made a point of structuring and managing the service in such a way as to minimize negative behavior, including the way he implemented comments. Twitter is another service that has managed to balance the benefits of pseudonynity with the downsides of such an approach, despite a number of legal challenges — and so is Reddit, despite what many people believe about the service.

The bottom line is that a Facebook-style fixation on “real” names and “real” identities is not the only approach that works. As sociologists such as Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd and others such as Chris Saad of Echo have noted, Facebook’s attempt to force all of our activity into a single unified identity is unnatural in many ways, and will likely fail (and the social network’s decision to allow standalone services like Instagram and WhatsApp to continue to offer pseudonymity suggests that it may have realized this).

The impulses that create and sustain anonymous apps and services like Secret or Whisper aren’t mysterious — there is a powerful human need for unfiltered and raw interaction, and that need can be both good and bad. It remains to be seen whether Secret and Whisper can manage to make the transition to become useful communities in their own right, like Twitter or Reddit, or whether they will ultimately vanish like their predecessors.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Moodboard

  1. I cannot agree more.

    We need the ability to manage, control and even self-edit our online persona because of the possible negative outcomes. My participation in online communities is exactly predicated on those axioms and without them, I would quickly become just another lurker spectating, instead of participating, on the web.

    1. Thanks, Madlyb.

  2. There is no such thing as being truly anonymous online. From a superficial sense, sure Secret and Whisper allow you to have a voice without identifying yourself. But, it is important to note, the government will figure out who you are if they want to.

  3. In addition to the tweet by Marc, there was a healthy dialogue going around mostly the downside of anonymous, friend-based broadcast distribution networks. My thoughts are 10%-20% of communication on top of anon + close tie broadcast nets can be great. 80% will be evil. https://twitter.com/chrisamccoy/status/445392876441042945

    Also, this Kevin Rose interview with Secret co-founder David Byttow is a good antidote to my armchair criticism and concern: http://techcrunch.com/video/david-byttow-of-secret-foundation/518158333/

    1. Thanks, Chris.

  4. Online celebrity is hard too.
    Not that I am concerned, but just saying.

  5. Identities are transitive. Your identity to whom? Your identity as a father is not the same as your identity as a member of a sports team, and is different again to your identity as an employee. They have involve different language registers, different priorities, different relationships. Identities should be modelled not as attributes of a person but attributes of a relationship.
    Modelling identity as an attribute of person implies that “all your relationships are belong to us” (the ID provider). That doesn’t seem like a workable proposition. As you’ve noted, the task of provisioning the changes to a person-id are probably impossible to scale.
    Identities evolve over time. Because they are relationships. Nuff said.
    Much of what passes currently for authorisation is unnecessary. Usually what is required is the recognition of a single attribute of an already known relationship. Is this person over 18? I don’t your need street address for that. Or your name. Attribute – or Claims – assertions work fine for minimally intrusive access management.

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