Several new startups are trying anonymity again, promoting secret sharing as a social good. But two decades of the internet show that bullying and meanness flourish under anonymous conditions.
With its tagline “Speak Freely,” Secret claims that it promotes freedom of speech. Such is the culture of fear in Silicon Valley that its founders believe people won’t give genuine feedback if they have to own up to their opinions publicly.
Whisper proposes that anonymous sharing combines the liberation of self expression and the excitement of a dating app — if you share secrets, you can “express yourself” and “meet new people.”
Yik Yak is bringing the technology of 1990s Usenet flame wars to teenagers’ smartphones, enabling a new generation of high school students to discover the charms of anonymous trolling. What could possibly go wrong? Founders Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll… okay, I’ll just stop there.
The other innovation is that instead of everything on the internet living forever, posts to some of these services, it is claimed, “expire” and are permanently deleted, as Snapchat images are imagined to disappear (but don’t really).
In either approach, your identity and your secrets are secret to everyone, except to the owners of these services, our friends in law enforcement and contractors to anti-terrorism agencies. Aha… doesn’t that suggest their business model based on collecting blackmail-bait? You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
There are countless other new twists on anonymous sharing of information, but they all share one trait: the belief that anonymity, which has vanished as we’ve voluntarily built up our public personas in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, allows for more authentic communication because it protects the speaker behind an untraceable mask.
These startups are peddling a false vision. Anonymity does not produce freedom of speech. A system of laws guarantees freedom of speech. If one is fortunate to live in such a system, one can speak freely and without fear by one’s own name. Nor does anonymity provide the liberation of self-expression; think of the power of individuals living in oppressive regimes — Solzhenitsyn; Aung San Suu Kyi, Vaclav Havel; Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela. Their authority derived from being able to speak truth to power in their own names, not anonymously.
Onymity — representing yourself as who you really are — encourages accountability*. That’s why flame wars don’t break out in social media to the same degree as they did back when no one on the internet knew you were a dog. Anonymity encouraged bad behavior because when identities were hidden or obscured** otherwise sensible people did not police themselves as they would in public. Whereas anonymous flame wars tend to burn down the community they happen in, onymous arguments tend to be easily contained and sputter out before they do too much harm.
And that’s the real problem with anonymous sharing as it is encouraged by this newest wave of apps: whatever honest communication they may enable will be drowned out by a tsunami of childish and mean-spirited garbage.
The creators of these apps think they can design bullying out of their apps. But because bullying flourishes under the conditions of anonymity and obscured identity, it is inherent in the nature of these apps. It can’t be designed out. I hope the creators — and the VCs who would fund them — realize that before any real harm is done.
*Granted, as cable “news” gabfests show, Onymity is no guarantee of civility.
** The early internet conferred a kind of secrecy even when identities were known. Online conversations like the infamous Moby flame war of 1992 were happening in a subculture outside the public mainstream, which also discouraged the self-policing and politeness that