The Return Of The Anonymous Internet

Social networks put identity at the center of our online lives. Is it too late to turn back?

It's not fair to judge a new social network (or app) right after it launches; it's like dismissing a restaurant for its irritating clientele on opening night, when the only people eating are the owner's friends and the press. But I don't think it's the first-night crowd that makes Secret, a new semi-anonymous confession app, an utterly paralyzing nightmare. It's something deeper: It's that the app shows us, for the first time, what anonymity looks and feels like on a post-Facebook internet.

Facebook's most basic and influential accomplishment was the establishment of the first true public identity service on the internet. Before Facebook, anonymity was the default: Using your real name was optional and often pointless, a burden both for you and the communities you became a part of. Before social networking, the consumer internet and its major hubs were best understood as frontier territories: Everybody was perpetually new in town, crowds of fresh strangers just shaking hands and exchanging stories. It was both exhilarating and limiting; it opened new forms of expression, some of which are threatened by the internet's new insistence on real identity. It also narrowed how we saw the internet, and made it feel like a distant, separate place. An escape.

Now over a billion people use Facebook every month, most with their real names. When I meet someone new, there's a very good chance I can find them on the site, or on LinkedIn, or elsewhere through a Google search. Real identity is now the internet's default setting. Anonymity is the deviation — the internet hasn't criminalized it, exactly, but Facebook has at least made it seem more illicit. Consider: YouTube doesn't even want anonymous comments anymore. YouTube!

A theme of illicitness runs through Secret, and through Whisper, its much larger predecessor. Whisper, which is making grand claims about the new value of anonymity, groups confessions by tags and locations, so the confessions tend to be more generally salacious: "I don't believe in ______ anymore," or "I'm cheating on my _______ with my ______ and I don't feel bad." They succeed by being either exciting or relatable — sometimes they're just platitudes dressed up as personal stories. (Remember PostSecret?)

Since Secret shows you anonymized posts from your phone's contact list (and that contact list's contact lists), its early confessions are less about confiding than taking aim:

Dan Nosowitz at The Awl sums up his experience:

It's a hybrid: it's incredibly invasive when making your network, but then anonymous during actual use. It's a tease: anonymous, but it only shows secrets from people you might know in real life. And when you're making an app that takes a stand against the status quo (lol, like any of this is serious at all), I'm not sure it makes sense to have a hybrid or a tease; it feels like too much of a compromise.

The closest equivalent to this on Facebook is the confession page phenomenon, which groups confessions, rumors, and accusations by school (and anonymizes them using one of a variety of non-Facebook posting tools). The old internet had plenty of equivalents to this but few so instantly personal. Like confession pages, Secret is a service that uses the threat of identity to supercharge anonymity. So far it's created something that's less exciting than it is ugly.

Facebook has hinted that it is willing to experiment with anonymity again, but that's a liberal reading of Mark Zuckerberg's words. In context, it sounds like he's simply realized that, for newer apps or services, people might not want to import 10 years of Facebook friend baggage the instant they sign up. Resentment of Facebook's ownership of identity may also influence critics who read the rise of messaging apps, and Snapchat, as an across-the-board response to Facebook. Snapchat challenges the notion that the internet should record and host everything that's posted to it into perpetuity, and suggests that ephemerality is the internet's natural state. But there's little evidence that Snapchat thinks of itself as an anonymous service, or that its users treat it that way. It's a replacement for other habits — texting, emailing, chatting — which generally involve knowing the other parties personally. If it feels more personal than Facebook, it's because behavior on the internet's de facto profile service is so carefully measured: Facebook feels public, and its servers remember everything. Snapchat is no less tied to who you are, it's just more private in every other dimension.

Secret is a useful reminder that the internet is less a distinct location than an addition to the place we already live, and that familiar expectations should apply. We take it for granted that most words we speak to people will never be recorded or repeated anywhere; when they are, we prefer to know and modify our speech accordingly. We also take for granted, at least most of the time, that the people we interact with intimately know who we are. We expect to go out of our way if we want to ensure otherwise.

All we know about the people on Secret is that we know them, or that someone we know knows them. That type of anonymity isn't a return to nature. It's a masquerade ball.

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