It’s easy to sometimes forget that the social media landscape hasn’t always leaned so heavily on real names. That’s largely because Facebook, one of the biggest proponents of the “use your real name online” movement, so dominates the social space (though people have long fought them on the “real name” issue).
But before Facebook, there was 4Chan. The social image sharing and bulletin-board site founded in 2003 is all about anonymity. Even before that, there was the social networking site MySpace—another place where you could sign up with a fake name and fake profile photo (and if you added glittery graphics? Allll the better). By the time Twitter rolled around in 2006, we’d accepted anonymity and pseudonyms so thoroughly that the site actually has to indicate when certain accounts are actually owned and operated by the people or entities they claim to be.
But you can go even farther back to the early days of the Internet and find plenty of anonymity. Think about those early chat rooms for a moment … what started out as a glorious novelty is more or less engrained in much of online world—with a couple of big exceptions. Facebook isn’t alone in the real-name movement. Google property YouTube, one of the most virulent hotbeds of anonymous trolling, even went so far as to try to get us to use our real names.
Why use real names?
Well, we’ve been given reasons. Honestly, we can probably all attest to the fact that anonymity breeds ugly behavior. People who can hide behind the cloak of online anonymity will say some pretty terrible things to each other.
Interestingly, The Atlantic covered this “Real Name” concept back in 2011. Alexis C. Madrigal said that,
“The kind of naming policy that Facebook and Google Plus have is actually a radical departure from the way identity and speech interact in the real world. They attach identity more strongly to every act of online speech than almost any real world situation does.”
The example given: Let’s say you’re walking down the street and suddenly have the urge to shout, “Down with the government!” Well, there’s a very good chance most of the people who see you won’t have any idea who you are. What your name is. Who you work for. Who you’re friends with. And depending on where you are and who hears you, (Are you standing near your boss? What about a TV camera?) your expectations of the permanence of your statement—how long it will be attached to you—could vary.
However, on Facebook? On Google+? Our statements are attached to our name. They’re attached to everything you can search out about us—where we live, where we went to school, who our family members are. (And we know that even deleting our slip-ups is only moderately effective.)
The new anonymity
It’s certainly an interesting way to think about anonymity. Maybe all this naming-names is the novelty. And yet … there’s something that feels, well, novel about some of the new anonymous social networks, two of the most notable of which are Whisper and Secret. Perhaps it’s that the networks both tout anonymity as their major point of differentiation.
Both are free apps that allow you to share secrets anonymously from the comfort of your own smartphone. In both cases, the “secrets” are short, text on top of images. There are slight differences between the two.
On Secret, you’re initially connected to friends who also use the app—the app uses your contacts to find other users you know, though it doesn’t tell you who those friends are. When you post a secret, it’s shared with your network, and if someone in your network hearts your secret, it’s shared with their network … and on and on. The problem with this approach is that if you don’t have many friends on Secret, you don’t see much. It’s by design—the app shows you more if you have more friends because it will be harder to guess who the secret is from.
On Whisper, your messages are publicly viewable to all, right away. You can start getting replies to your secrets from strangers immediately. You can search whispers by location, and when I tested it out, I found out there are plenty of people on Whisper in my area who are looking for a … well, for a good time, I guess. Of the two apps, Whisper also has a more “memey” aesthetic—and, from my cursory explorations, it’s also the one that’s more prone to creepiness. I quickly got one direct message: “R u hot?”
Also, in both cases, users seemed to have a difficult time figuring out what, exactly, constitutes a secret.
But how anonymous are they?
The biggest caveat for users of these new anonymous social networks is this: The descriptor “anonymous” should be taken with a big, fat spoonful of salt. If SnapChat’s scuffle with the FTC taught us anything, it should be to question privacy promises made by smartphone apps. Mashable took a look at the privacy policies of these apps, and laid out plenty to be concerned about, including the fact that in order to use Whisper, you give it permission to reuse your content anywhere and any way they want. Secret actually goes so far as to say anonymity is a privilege, meaning it can be taken away.
And perhaps this is why the secrets are largely so banal. We don’t really trust most of these social networks (not even the big guys who require us to use our real names). If we really had juicy secrets we didn’t want anyone to know about, why would we post them on these networks, especially with devices we’re told over and over again are inherently hackable?
And yet, I worry a bit about how these sites may be used. Anonymous social networks are natural avenues for whisper campaigns—we’ve already seen it happen when, back in February, someone posted on Secret “I work at Evernote and we’re about to get acquired.” There was no truth to the “secret,” but that didn’t stop it from lighting up the Twittersphere.
What do you think? Are you excited about the new anonymous networks? Weary? Indifferent?
Eleanor Pierce is the shared media manager at Arment Dietrich, and she also blogs regularly at Spin Sucks. She’s a recovering journalist who recently moved back to beautiful Bend, Oregon, after living for four years in South Carolina, where she learned, among other things, that people on the East Coast largely don’t know what maple bars are (answer: The best donut).