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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.

  • dballing

    I'm sorry but I disagree. Anonymity is not some creature of the Internet age. Anonymous/Pseudonymous writings go back to the time of the US Revolutionary War, and beyond. The ability to speak the unpopular truth to power, safely, is something we've protected as a society for a long, long, time.

    Today's “social networking” is, to me, the blip. Eventually, people will realize just how horrible the end-game is about everyone knowing everything about everyone, and there being no proverbial place to hide and be one's self, and this will all ratchet itself back to some middle ground.

    But I don't see anonymity as being “over”, not by a long shot.

  • A. Nonymous

    I think that you might be overstating Facebook's dedication to “real identity.” If you go over (and I apologize ahead of time for the people using this name) and search Facebook for “Fake User” you will find many varieties… and that is just one tiny obvious fake name. The games on Facebook encourage more friends, or you can't accomplish as much, and some people have one other identity, many have many, many more. In addition, people make separate accounts in order to play games without their company seeing all the activity, or to make that snarky comment they wouldn't dare to make if a certain person saw it. Is doing everything under your own name more open and honest, or is it more honest to allow people to cater to different audiences… just as in real life? You don't say the same things, or say them in the same way, when you are in a job interview for instance. You might joke with your friends about something that you wouldn't want to tell your mom. Is that bad? I don't think so. I think it is okay to be anonymous sometimes, and be able to be more open than if you have to remember to be “always on” for the whole world.

    Interestingly, this page allows me to post anonymously as well. :) Under the circumstances, I think I'll go for it.

  • http://managinggreatness.com Gil Reich

    Thank you Mr. Nonymous. I think I know your brother Epo who had a word named after him in a unique self-referential reference. I accept your points. Sharing different parts of yourself with different people is normal and appropriate, and we're going to have to continue to find ways to do that.

  • http://managinggreatness.com Gil Reich

    I agree that there was some anonymity before what I called “The Age of Anonymity” and that there will be plenty after as well. I think there was probably more anonymity in the past century, peaking in the 80s and 90s on the internet, than in other periods. I don't think we'll have that level again in the near future, and I think that's a good thing.

    I'll accept that the current social networking reality is extreme the other way, and that we'll sort this out to some middle ground.

  • Gab

    I'm more afraid of corporations like Google than of the government, who I generally trust. Google has shown it's apt to do all sorts of sketchy things and claim the high road. Gov't is apt to claim they're morons but then u get in close and there's lots of helping hands, in my experience (eg Interior Ministry). Hope u know who this is from, Gil.

  • http://managinggreatness.com Gil Reich

    Of course you trust the government more Gab, you're Canadian :-)

    I hear you, but I disagree. Just realized that people have been using the 1984 metaphor as a reason to petition the government to protect us from totalitarians, but in the book the totalitarians were the government. (Not that that proves anything).

    Truth is, I do think this is something that more Americans feel than Canadians (or anybody else). No other government was so designed on the principle that government is the biggest threat to our liberty and happiness.

  • http://www.DefinitelySomething.com Jacob Shwirtz

    I agree with you completely. If nothing else, the success of certain websites have shown us that people are far less interested in privacy than you might expect. Its hard to overestimate how little people seem to care about privacy. We used to make sure of the silly blogs being kept by teenagers and then we moved to make fun of the silly details being micro-blogged on twitter and now we're astonished that people are willing to say where they are every moment of the day (and all for virtual badges!). Social networking is not a blip. I want targeted ads and I have no problem with the amount of info Google knows about me – it provides enough value to me so I don't care. And I now look strangely upon anyone that is trying to remain private or hidden online. What do they have to hide? I don't get it…

  • http://managinggreatness.com Gil Reich

    Thanks Jacob. I remember when we were working together that you expressed this attitude, it was one of the things that made me suspect that a generation was growing up with a completely different attitude towards anonymity.

  • http://www.DefinitelySomething.com Jacob Shwirtz

    What's really hard to grasp is that certain Internet users see no value in doing, believing or experiencing something UNLESS they can promote it, share it, show it off and broadcast it — and not just to their friends but to as many people as possible! Why say “happy birthday” on someone's wall instead of sending them a private message? Think about it! When about to do almost ANYTHING, certain people – either consciously or not – choose to do it in the most public way, even if that action has nothing to do with anyone and is of no interest to anyone.

  • Yuval

    I beg to differ. Danah Boyd, at SXSW 2010, said:
    “Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline. But what privacy means may not be what you think.”


  • http://managinggreatness.com Gil Reich

    I agree that privacy isn't dead, but I think people are more open that they've ever been before. And I think the “On the internet nobody knows you're a dog” days were an anomaly that won't return. It's an interesting piece by Boyd, thanks for linking, but I think some of his examples make the opposite point. 65% of the people chose to change their Facebook privacy settings to allow more of their information to be public. I suspect he's right that most people didn't realize what they were doing, but that only strengthens the point that most people don't care enough about privacy (even if they should) enough to let a big “We're changing your privacy settings, OK?” question slow them down. People who care deeply about privacy would have given a moment's thought to that question, but 65% of users clicked to share with everybody, either because they made a decision or because they didn't care enough to slow down. That said, I accept that there will always be some importance to people having some privacy, and sites like Google and Facebook may sometimes be too cavalier about it.

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