After people-rating app Peeple was called “the decline of internet anonymity”, anonymous app Secret shut down after just 18 months because “anonymity online turns people into total assholes”, and a threat from bulletin board 4chan to the University of New South Wales, it seems anonymous social media is in trouble – again.
To be clear, I’m not talking about hiding your computer’s details with Virtual Private Networks or The Onion Router. Anonymous social media are sites and apps you use without your real name. But can they thrive, or are they doomed to die like Secret?
We’re familiar with the idea that social media companies want to collect real names, (and just about every other kind of quantifiable information) from their users, so they can sell it to advertisers. Facebook has a real name policy, meaning it requires its users to “provide the name they use in real life” (as though the internet isn’t reality). We’ve seen the demand for anonymity follow. People on Facebook play around with pseudonyms, nicknames, and having their middle name in place of their surname: they’re responding to this automated data collection, the real name policy, and increasing surveillance from peers.
Although the Pew Research Center reports that 86 per cent of internet users have taken steps to become more anonymous online, the most common strategies to do so are clearing cookies and browser histories, deleting content from social media, not using a website with a real name policy, or using temporary usernames and email addresses.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter and Reddit let people be flexible with the names they choose. A look at how people use the two sites reveals all kinds of anonymity practices: Twitter allows people to have a username and profile name that they can change at any time, and on Reddit, creating temporary or ‘throwaway’ accounts is common. But they still struggle with harassment. Even Twitter’s CEO has admitted that “we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls”.
There are fears that anonymity is the cause of harassment online, but it’s an issue for all kinds of social media, anonymous or not. In Danielle Citron’s book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, the law professor gives some strategies to counter online harassment – and none of them involve banning anonymity. Citron believes having anonymity as a platform affordance can mean people use it to act destructively, but allowing anonymity can also bring out the best in us, because people can communicate more honestly. Her proposals include clear community guidelines, better reporting systems, quick responses to reports, explaining reasons for punishments, and letting users enforce the good behaviour of other users.
One app that looked like it had taken this advice actually came from Facebook itself. When Rooms launched last year, creator Josh Miller claimed that in 1990s internet culture, “flexibility over what we called ourselves allowed us to bring forward sides of ourselves that we really like”. Rooms draws on this 90s chatroom logic to let people create Rooms about particular topics, and choose their nickname for each Room they’re in. Moderators on Rooms have tools that include an option to pre-approve all posts, and strict banning systems: if someone is banned from a Room, all their posts and comments are deleted, and their device cannot rejoin the Room, meaning they cannot simply create a new account and log in again.
Honestly, the most terrible thing about Rooms was having QR codes for invites. So it’s puzzling that Rooms has been so quiet since launching a year ago: the latest post on its own Facebook page was on 21 February. It seems Facebook isn’t convinced that anonymity is valuable enough to put the resources in to expand Rooms beyond an iOS app and make it a success.
The history of anonymous social media looks a lot like a series of experiments by developers who recognise the demand for sites and apps in which people can communicate without this being linked to the rest of their online profile. Social Number featured numbers instead of usernames, 11Beep users chose how long their anonymous message could live on the site before self-destructing, Yik Yak and Spraffl display anonymous messages to those who are nearby, Ask.fm is for anonymous questions. Despite initial interest, most of these have fizzled out over time, failing to retain users on a large scale.
There are exceptions. 4chan still has a prominent role in internet culture, and anonymous app Whisper boasts 10 million monthly active users as well as a host of lucrative advertising deals with brands like Coca-Cola, Hulu, and 20th Century Fox (possibly because of its strong moderation system, which employs algorithms to flag inappropriate content, and a full-time team of over 100 human moderators).
But the future of social media anonymity is in the platforms we already have. People will thrive when platforms offer content, connections, and conversations that they want to be part of, without insisting they use their real names to access it.
Take note, Google+.
Emily van der Nagel is writing a PhD on social media anonymity at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. You can follow her on Twitter here.