Anonymity in the era of social networks: what to do when your “privacy level” drops below zero

Original author: Kat Ascharya
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Just because we experience paranoia does not mean that we should experience it.

Do you remember nicknames? Perhaps it was a nickname for e-mail, and maybe for a chat or forum. In those early days of the Internet, it didn’t even occur to us to use our real names — you know, just in case someone gets particularly unpleasant — and that’s why we invented stupid pseudonyms to hide behind. But Mark Zuckerberg changed everything, as you know, declaring war of anonymity, saying that fake names are "an example of a lack of honesty and fullness of personality." I had friends who registered on Facebook with ridiculous nicknames that they used to use on MySpace and Friendster - and Zuckerberg immediately sent them back, insisting on real names and surnames.

Since Facebook "shot" and leaked to all corners and cracks of the Internet, it became common to comment and like websites through it. Meanwhile, the Internet has become increasingly commercial, as have search tools for viewing our stories. Then we began to sculpt out of ourselves-virtual something like a brand and build our network reputation. We started using Facebook and Twitter as evidence of our amazing lives and achievements. And today we often look down on those who are not highlighted in the search, on a subconscious level it seems to us that they can not be completely trusted.

If you are not online, it seems that you do not exist - and remember, aliases do not count.

In a sense, the war that Zuckerberg declared anonymity was a success - we are now waiting for our public profiles to reflect our privacy. Our personality has become a currency that we exchange for convenience and additional privileges. Register somewhere and, most likely, you will at least be asked to provide your name and email address.

But now we are witnessing a paradigm shift. Since many of us - especially the hyper-dependent people of the new millennium - get tired of constant publicity, the pendulum again swung towards anonymity.

It all started with the Snapchat app, which erases sent photos from the recipient’s phone a few seconds after reading it. At first, in order to avoid consequences, people reacted with caution, considering him a dubious way of sending messages, especially of a sexual nature.

Few believed that the application would succeed, but it happened. According to Vice Magazine , more than 150,000,000 “snaps” are exchanged every day in the Snapchat service between approximately 5,000,000 users, most of whom are teenagers and students. In fact, the cost of this project soared from $ 70,000,000 to $ 500,000,000 in just six months. The idea struck a chord: we want to share something and communicate with each other without having to attach a digital profile about ourselves.

Application owners followed in the same footsteps and decided to seize on the need of people to save personal information. Whisper, for example, allows you to share your most secret secrets, while maintaining anonymity and get closer to other people based on shared emotional experiences. There are different secrets: from serious ones like "my father raped me" to eccentric ones like "when I leave the hotel room, I always fold the blankets so that it seems that there is a corpse." Together, they present a fascinating picture of the whole gamut of human experience. According to Slate magazine , Whisper scored more than three billion views per month, being especially popular among visitors aged 18 to 24.

Snapchat and Whisper projects are the main examples of the realization of a person’s desire for anonymity, but now there are more and more such projects, albeit with a twist, but imitators. For example, Secret serviceAllows users and friends of their friends to anonymously share their innermost thoughts with people from your phone’s contact list. Services such as Confide and Telegram offer the ability to send a message that "self-destructs" after reading. Notifications from the Wut app are also anonymous.

Why are anonymous applications gaining such popularity, especially among teenagers? In short, our personal data has become a burden and has become a vulnerability. In addition to the fear of data tracking and privacy violations, we also face the ubiquitous need to “keep up appearances.”

“You are trying to paint a desirable, enviable picture of your life for other people on Facebook,” said Duncan Watts, Microsoft’s lead researcher, according to DigiDay . “But when it comes to things that you are not very proud of, which you are ashamed of or afraid to discover, the very last people on Earth that you would like to tell are your friends and family.” The result is a lack of sincerity that stifles a true understanding of each other and the close relationship that we are so eager for.

Watts first noticed our desire for “anonymous but human” communication when researching answers on Yahoo Answers, the portal for answering questions. Anonymity allows people to ask sensitive questions about mental health and sexual relations, but these answers can be found with a simple search through Google. On the contrary, it becomes clear that people are important not the answers to questions, but confirmation, the feeling of being heard and understood.

“You want anonymity, but you would like to feel like you're talking to a living person who understands where you came from,” he adds. And this is exactly what all these applications promise - a mask that you can hide behind, but feel free to speak frankly and be understood.

The sudden jump in popularity of Secret and Whisper services coincides with the ongoing changes in relation to anonymity: we are increasingly in need of the opportunity to reset our virtual personalities at least temporarily. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Pew research center, 86% of Internet users take measures to remove or hide their online presence, and a clear majority - 59% - believe that the Internet should be used anonymously.

It is curious that the strongest desire for anonymity manifested itself among the youngest users - from 18 to 29 years old - it is they, and not the older generations, who are trying to hide their profiles, according to Pew. It seems that the generation that has spent most of its life under Facebook’s rule is starting to rebel.

Anonymity - and all its derivatives, such as other identities and pseudonyms - is not just a whim of the Millennium generation, but an old cultural tradition. In the Middle Ages, writers often wrote anonymously and did not expect glory and retribution, except in heaven.

Even with the advent of the printing press — and the increasing publication of books, brochures, and other literary material — the authors still preferred to remain anonymous.

More than 80% of all novels published in the UK between 1750 and 1790, were published under pseudonyms, " says the book historian James Raven (James Raven) journalist from Los Angeles Times. Anonymity, of course, has its advantages, according to John Mullan, author of the book“Anonymity: The Secret History of English Literature,” anonymity played the role of a cloak that protected satirists who ridiculed the political system, such as Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift, from the arrest and legal or political consequences of their caustic satyrs and remarks. Young journalists publish articles and editorials without indicating the name of the author for the same reason - this is a tradition that continues in publications such as The Economist.

The ability to publish without a signature helped women gain a foothold in the early history of literature: such writers as Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot - the pseudonym Mary Ann Evans - did so at the very beginning of the literary path, did so anonymously. Such a shield gave them the opportunity to tell the truth, express disagreement on pressing political issues and publish scandalous, but innovative works without fear of punishment for violating public order.

The freedom to speak sincerely, without having to express one’s identity, remains today. This is why therapeutic groups, such as the club of alcoholic anonymous or drug addicts, help so much - and that's why many were so outraged when one of the members of the anonymous addict club toldThe New York Times about the personal comments that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman made before his death.

Legally, we guarantee anonymity to informants who often transmit non-public information to reporters. And in the case of Nixon and the Watergate scandal, the identity of an agent nicknamed “Deep Throat” - one of the most famous and discussed cases of anonymity in US political history - has remained a secret for decades.

At the personal and political levels, anonymity is often a shelter or refuge that protects our freedom to speak without fear of punishment. But the concept of freedom became more complicated with the advent of the Internet, which of all made potential publishers. Today, even a random tweet or photo can be seen by millions.

But some, taking full advantage of anonymity, pour out the gall and hate that they hold back in real life. Online trolls, for example, often spread negativity by covering themselves with a wall of fake names and personalities. But even a normal person writes vulgar, racist, hateful comments when no one knows that it is he who does it. According to a study by the University of Houston, 53% of anonymous comments on the newspaper website contain vulgar, racist, or in any way vicious overtones - a stark contrast to 29% of those comments that require disclosure. In all, nearly half of the 137 largest newspapers request a name to avoid exposure to the barbaric nature of anonymity.

Some researchers believe that the problem is not anonymity, but group thinking and the culture of the communities people write to. According to a study of teenagers in Singapore, cheating in online games has greatly influenced how a player identifies with gaming communities. We cheat and troll because we think everyone else is doing it and in the group this is considered acceptable behavior. In the same way, if a group demonstrates the spirit of fair play, players are more likely to follow these standards, even if they play anonymously.

Anonymity actually downplayed the importance of individuality and forced the influence of groups, obliging those who want to be members of them to follow the rules. It turns out that if you focus more on clarifying and strengthening proper behavior, and less on anonymity, the problems of cyber violence and gross exchange of views will be better regulated.

"In the long term, the formation of healthy moral norms, culture and relationships in the gaming community to help prevent deviant behavior", - informs Vivian Chen (Vivan Chen) Polygon magazine. Eliminating anonymity will not create a healthy atmosphere in online communities and cultures - tough moderation, coercive rules and the willingness of its members to speak openly - this is what will work efficiently.

Secret and Whisper take this responsibility seriously and monitor it to prevent attacks with criticism and cyber hooliganism. According to Forbes , Secret plans to release an update to monitor security and privacy, and Whisper, in turn, hired employees to monitor and moderate content and discussions.

“You are who you are when no one is looking at you,” says Whisper founder Michael Heyward to Business Insider. “Anonymity is a very powerful tool. It seems to us that it is like the superpower of Spider-Man, because great responsibility comes with great strength. ”

Despite the fresh interest in anonymity, it is almost impossible due to the enormous reach of the Internet. It’s hard to hide the digital trails of the data that we leave behind. Almost everything can be identified and any comment can be tracked to its source.

The riots in Vancouver or London, the bombings in Boston showed that we can find out who was there and what he was doing, and all because of the unlimited possibilities of a smartphone, a systematic overview of photo intelligence and the Internet. The facial recognition system is improved in detail and use, challenging yet another privacy and anonymity.

Perhaps we can never be completely anonymous.

But technology companies are starting to change their minds about privacy, recognizing that requiring a name and email can take conscious users too far from respecting privacy rights. According to Business Week , Facebook is developing applications that allow anonymous guests to increase traffic and increase advertising revenue, respectively. Some information will still be correlated with an anonymous ID to create some kind of personalization, but this will make it possible to use the site without having to provide personal data - the best thing to do.

Zuckerberg himself - once already advocating rigorous registration of real names - softened his attitude towards anonymity. “If you are constantly under pressure from a real person, then this seems to me to be a heavy burden,” he told Business Week.

We feel this when we log in to Facebook - the need to portray life in a certain way, publish only those things that can entertain friends and collect more “likes”. So, we leave the unadorned, sometimes crude truth of life and thoughts to ourselves, creating a false image and superficial ideas in order to keep up. This puts pressure on us after some time, and it seems to us that this is what lies at the basis of our complaints about social networks.

So is it any wonder the popularity of Whisper and Secret? In these anonymous networks, we do not share interests, but emotions, hidden thoughts and almost forbidden ideas. They are not always attractive - and yes, some of them may be fictitious, but all this goes beyond the usual superficial conversations in most social networks. This kind of genuine, open exchange is at the core of true, stable communities - and is often the reason that we live half our lives online.

It takes courage to open up, whether in life or on the Internet. But sometimes, we want to hide behind stupid nicknames to take a break from the heavy burden of our personality and free our consciousness.

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