The Age of Anonymity has Ended

“I want to believe that we will finally admit — to ourselves and to the public at large — that allowing people to hide behind anonymity has not been good for our industry, our culture or our country.” — Anonymous (just kidding. Connie Schultz)

Back to privacy? Won't happen.

For thousands of years most people lived in small communities, and knew most of what there was to know about one another.

Then we saw the rise of cities, and increase in mobility, and city-dwellers could suddenly live in relative anonymity. This had many liberating benefits, but also quite a few costs. I’m guessing the average small town has neither strip clubs nor homeless people.

When the internet began, the first movements were towards increased anonymity. You could go online and be whoever you wanted and nobody would ever know.

And then a funny thing happened. After years of creating fake online identities the norm became to use your real identity online. The rise of Facebook really marks this shift in internet usage, and the increased use of Facebook Connect means that people are using their real identity as they travel throughout the internet. Facebook’s latest social releases will further accelerate this shift.

Of course technology has been creating large databases of information about our habits for a few decades now, through identifiers such as credit cards and loyalty numbers. Linking these to the information now available about us on the Web is creating enormous databases that know enough to qualify as deities.

At SMX Toronto, Gillian Muessig expressed strong concerns about these Big Brother all-knowing corporations with all this data, and she tried to rally up the troops to get active in encouraging politicians to craft intelligent privacy regulations.

But almost nobody at the conference seemed to care. As far as I can tell, most kids today (and by kids I mean anybody younger than me, which is a fast-growing demographic) have long-ago accepted this trade-off. They don’t value anonymity nearly as much my generation did. They don’t expect it, and they don’t particularly care about not having it. They’d rather get targeted ads and content from a technology that knows them than random junk from the era of mass-marketing and mass-broadcasting.

As we close the door on the age of anonymity, we should recognize the fortunate gains we made during that time in terms of tolerance. In a less tolerant age, it was far more common to keep secrets, to hide skeletons in the closet. I now routinely see younger generations talking comfortably about things their parents and grandparents would have hidden.

People are sometimes too open today, and they’ll learn to cut back. Hint: Don’t call in sick and then Tweet about what a great time you’re having at a party. When you give up your anonymity you have to be a lot more careful if you want to lie to some while telling the truth to others. We’ll learn, and I’d like to think we’ll live more honestly and openly.

Regarding legislation, perhaps there are some good laws that should be passed, but some quick concerns:

  • Many of us, myself certainly included, fear governments more than we fear corporations.
  • Government should not hinder individuals and corporations implicitly agreeing that we’ll let them know about us if in exchange they use this knowledge to personalize and improve our experiences.

The Age of Anonymity was a historical blip, between the time technology spread us apart physically to the time technology brought us together digitally. On the internet, everybody knows you’re a dog. Some will scream about 1984 and Brave New World, but in my opinion, the End of Anonymity is a good thing.