The Rise of Anonymous Networks


On or about 2004, the World Wide Web underwent a paradigm shift from static, passively consumed web pages to content that is interactive, user-generated and collaborative on a global scale. This inflection point, referred to as Web 2.0, was not so much a technical line in the sand as a semantic one, acknowledging the behavioral and use-case changes that would ultimately lead to the internet fulfilling much of its inventor’s, Sir Tim Berners Lee, original plan: a “collaborative medium, a place where we can all meet and read and write.”

From there, the online world started to look a lot like the offline one. Our digital identities were no longer anonymous avatars, but instead our actual identities, and our online linkages such as “friends” were not much different than our real-life ones; social networks had officially arrived. Companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter have since helped digitize our connections and foster sharing in a viral manner.

Recently, however, I’ve become most intrigued by a breed of networks that have created a new sharing dynamic. Generally speaking, the dominant networks of the last decade placed an emphasis on the true identities of their users. This has brought about certain integrity and authenticity to these networks previously unknown to the Internet, but sometimes gains comes with losses.

Because users or nodes are for the most part who they say they are, these networks are social, not anonymous. People put themselves out knowing that for better or worse, their name is attached and their peers are watching. User’s project (#selfie) and curate (i.e. “Advertisements for Myself”) how they want to be seen by others in a public setting not a private one. In other words, our true identities have become our curated identities.

In such a group setting, it often takes strong conviction, confidence or innocence (i.e. The Emperor’s New Clothes) to speak what is truly on one’s mind. We can fear being the only person who is right or the only person who is wrong; judgment or retribution (whistleblowing), or simply being alone in our thinking or beliefs. As a result, what we think or say in confidence is usually not repeated in public. If, however, users are able to retain their privacy when sharing among peers, a Anonymous Network of inner-thoughts, truths and emotions emerges.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

A candid thought that was, for example, previously only disclosed in a client-server relationship (patient-doctor) can now be shared peer-to-peer. Whisper and Secret are examples of Anonymous Networks that have married and digitized earlier concepts like PostSecret and the Temple at Burning Man to create such an environment. Both are growing rapidly in users and content; content that we have yet to see in abundance on other types of online social networks. Even social-network incumbents like Facebook – whose cornerstone has been true user identity – are experimenting with anonymity.

Shifts from client-server can be seen elsewhere in other spaces including payments. In the legacy banking system there is a central authority such as a payment provider or central bank (server) that determines the validity of a given transaction. All parties are known, but all transactions are not. In Bitcoin, all transactions are known (via the blockchain), but all parties are not.

Much focus has been placed on the assumption that transaction pseudonymity in Bitcoin encourages illegal behavior (while ignoring the clear deterrent of being able to trace transaction history forever), rather than what types of new behavior and frontiers it can enable (reduced transaction friction/costs, micro/nano transactions, banking the unbanked, autonomous agents, etc.). Similarly, the pseudonymity of Secret, Whisper and the like, have caused leading investors like Marc Andreessen to question whether these apps “lift people around us up or tear them down”. These concerns are real, and the biggest challenge of each respective company will be to continue to implement controls and safeguards to encourage positive environments to avoid becoming cesspools of gossip and negativity. Failure to execute on this will most certainly lead to their demise.

With that said, what are the possible benefits of a Anonymous Network? Here are a few that come to mind:

Cultural / Anthropological

Just like lyrical poets in ancient Rome that shed light on the cultural mores, fashions and zeitgeist of their time, so too can a digital timestamped thought blockchain. The tweeted diary of Samuel Pepys covering life in London in 1661 shows us what is possible.

Virality

By removing context, and employing a system of one-app-one-vote, a meme undergoes “natural selection” whereby transmission relies much more on the infectious nature of its content, and less on the reach and influence of its host(s).

Anonymous Peer Review

In-person “closed door” sessions can be a critical tool in idea development; however, they are limited in size and scale. Anonymous Networks can compliment this in-depth exercise with a blindfolded mile wide and (for now) inch deep analysis.

Social Outlet

The ability to share with peers in an anonymous format allows individuals to interact in a safe environment and “be themselves” (provided that safeguards and community standards are enforced).

Social Help

Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most well-known and prolific social help networks in the world. Whether it’s trying to maintain sobriety or dealing with suicidal thoughts (telephone hotlines), the ability to anonymously seek help from peers works.

Suicidal tendencies are often temporary in nature, and a person, if thwarted from an attempt, will most likely *not* find another way. A recent New York Times article chronicling the debate surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge safety net notes the following:

“In a 1978 study, ‘Where are They Now?’ Richard H. Seiden, a former professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, looked at the question of whether someone prevented from committing suicide in one place would go somewhere else. He studied people who attempted suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge from 1937 to 1971 and found that more than 90 percent were still alive in 1978 or had died of natural causes.”

A 2003 New Yorker piece titled Jumpers, profiled several individuals who survived their fall from the Golden Gate. Kevin Baldwin recalled the following:

“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

And Kevin Hines stated:

“My first thought was what the hell did I just do? I don’t want to die.”

While the Golden Gate Bridge will most likely see a physical barrier installed soon, it’s hard not to recognize the potential digital safety net that Anonymous Networks could afford despondent individuals who are seeking solace and companionship during their time of struggle. Social networks, especially ones that are anonymous, have the potential to cause harm (cyberbullying), and technology can increasingly be used for cruel pranks such as the one (webcam) played on Rutger’s freshman Tyler Clementi in 2010. It would be nice if the social help becomes one of the more prominent of use-cases of Anonymous Networks going forward.

  • Andrew Kennedy

    Great post.

  • Melinda

    The most significant difference I noticed when usernames became tied to actual identities was a reduction in abuses. I wonder if there are more issues with abusive behavior on these sites.

    The corollary to AA/NA is interesting except those meetings occur in person so a certain amount of identity is revealed. I’ve read about online communities encouraging anorexia so the anonymity could either exacerbate or alleviate pain and sickness.

  • George A. Polisner

    Thank you for a compelling article. I think anonymity depends upon the social design intent or purpose of a network. For example -I believe that while Facebook certainly has the resources to invest to influence civics and civic engagement -fake accounts, anonymity and the profit motive are antithetical to productive, civil and respectful discussions and wide-ranging perspectives. It’s why I left Oracle (in)famously and founded civ.works -an ad-free, privacy-protected platform built for civic action and engagement. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3c5f49e542a76dd68798dde6d0058a6d76094ec11f99fd24498e5062d6457f72.png

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