Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
July 26, 2010 4:36 PM

The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity

With more and more people adding more and more personal stuff about themselves online, it's fascinating to think that the next big thing in the online world could well be anonymity.

While it's easy to take a contrarian view of Social Media, Digital Marketing and the trends that are currently underway (and this includes everything from Facebook passing 500 million users to the growing popularity of location-aware platforms like Foursquare), it's important to remember that a lot of what made the online world popular during its commercial inception was the ability to be anonymous. That anonymity was quickly followed by the ability to be someone/something completely different from who you were in your offline world. The intersection of this personality conflict came shining through when Second Life (the virtual world) began to gain in popularity a few years back. You would have individuals switching genders (some were even switching species) and in all of the flamboyance of island owning and virtual partying, what we really had was a place where individuals could lead a "second life" or, as some described it, "the life I was meant to lead."

With all of this personal information that we're publishing online, people still have a need/want to speak anonymously.

While online social networks and Social Media swells in popularity, and those who disclose and act "more human" benefit from these real interactions with real human beings, there is (what seems to be) a growing groundswell towards places that embrace those who do not wish to disclose who they are and what they're up to. Whether it's individuals looking to block their IP from Hulu (a trick anyone who doesn't live in the United States has mastered) to the news today that Wikileaks put out a swath of leaked U.S. government documents about their actions in Afghanistan. Let's not even get started with the avatars you will encounter by playing the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft.

There's something happening here and it's not just about deep throats or predators.

The knee-jerk reaction to anonymity is that the person creating the content has "something to hide." It's logical, but it's not the entire story. Some people simply feel more liberated to speak their mind knowing that who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion. Look at what is happening on Chatroulette and Formspring. While both offer the ability to fully disclose who you are (in reality), the main push of traffic comes from people wanting to connect in a more anonymous way. Yes, with this comes the two-percent-plus of people doing very bad things, but along with that also comes a different kind of culture and content production that you won't see on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Everything is "with" not "instead of." 

Does this mean that having The King from Burger King show-up on Chatroulette is the future of Digital Marketing? Probably not, but it is a smart play and may well be the right strategy to let those futzing around on Chatroulette know that if they get tired of watching very ugly people doing very strange things to themselves, that they could take a break and grab a Whopper. The point is that Marketing is becoming less and less of a zero sum game (or one campaign to rule them all). Based on the wild and explosive growth of these platforms that allow and engender anonymity (and the huge uptake in a brand's desire to play with transmedia storytelling), it could also be an indication that your current/future Digital Marketing strategy may be well served by also embracing the anonymous side of the Internet. As an entry point, imagine what consumer reviews may look like if you didn't force people to declare who they are?

What are your thoughts about the growth of the anonymous Web? Should we be scared or ready to embrace this growing trend?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by anonymous
    anonymous

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    Reply
  • Posted by John McLachlan
    Mitch Joel

    I'm not sure it matters. Seems like there can be room for both. My own approach has been to be more open, much to my surprise.

    Reply
  • Posted by Nathan King
    Mitch Joel

    There was an article from eMarketer about two weeks ago that stated the younger Facebook users are beginning to abandon their accounts. This group wants to curse up a storm and tell their friends about their weekend activities, but not when their grandmother is on there too.

    Anonymity will be fun for brands too. Many consumers are reluctant to follow/fan a brand, but if the brand's profile is anonymous how does the consumer know its a brand?

    Reply
    • It is my understanding that this is the exact reason why Formspring is growing so fast - that is their target market.

      It's also something to think about: as these teenagers mature and realize how much content (and context) they've put online, they may very well close the virtual curtains and turn off the lights. I'm sure in the end it will be a mixture of the two different types of groups and that's going to impact how content is published and how it flows.

      Reply
      • Posted by Kash
        Mitch Joel

        This is exactly what I'm going through right now. I realized that I have so many online accounts and some content that I no longer want people to see when they Google my name. It's not content that could harm my reputation but content that I no longer want online.

        As for moving away from sites like FB because of family members, it's happening now with my younger nephews and family that are signing up for FB. I don't need them to know when I go out to drink or what my weekend activities are. It's pushing me to either abandon the platform or censor what I say.

        Reply
  • Posted by Mary H Ruth
    Mitch Joel

    Call me pollyanna, but I don't buy it. The internet has to serve our truthful selves or else it's just masturbation. Those who insist on anonymity don't get it.

    Reply
    • I don't think it's an absolute, and I don't agree that if people want to be anonymous that they "don't get it." I believe that the Internet (and Social Media) is many things to many different people and anonymity can play a strong role in this (again, see the Wikileaks news item to day for more on that).

      Reply
      • Posted by Mike
        Mitch Joel

        Yea I agree with Mitch here. I think that there's a lot to talk about out there that most people don't agree with - especially those touchy subjects that people are trying to create a movement behind. Until that time when these things become socially acceptable most people discussing them (especially on the pro side) want to keep themselves anonymous.

        You'd be surprised about how much easier it is to tell the truth about certain issues when those listening don't know who is talking... like Mitch said - take this wikileaks site for example. How much truth will start to come to light because of it... and also that 4Chan group and their "Moot" campaign.


        Great read Mitch.

        Reply
        • I had a chance to see see/hear m00t speak at TED last year. It was such a fascinating story about community and anonymity. Thanks for adding them to the conversation.

          Reply
          • Posted by Mike Ketelaars
            Mitch Joel

            Mitch what do you think about separating work personas from personal personas? Do you think it's necessary? (for example every tweet I could post as "Work Mike" vs. "Chill Mike" before my message). This would let people know right off the bat whether or not the message would interest them.

            My friends don't care about half my work interests and I'm sure my work colleagues don't really care about personal tweets (ie. sports, vacations, etc..)

            I know a lot of people have been basically mashing the two lives together but, maybe there's a better way. What do you think?

            Reply
            • I think we've evolved to the point where we're just "humans". Not "humans at work" and "humans at home." My one caution would be to ensure that you don't breach your employment agreement, NDAs or social media guidelines/policies.

              Reply
  • Posted by Danny Starr
    Mitch Joel

    reading this, I kept thinking to myself: Haven't we always had large amounts of anonymity on the web and that the only difference today is that we now have more tools to connect people in that way?

    And what does being anonymous even mean anymore? Something attached to me online may not have my name but it may contain a picture that is me or some content that could be traced back to me. I tend to think that it is becoming harder and hard to be anonymous on the net. How many people have their parents on social networks? Chatroulette is only anonymous until somebody you know ends up in front of you.

    Reply
    • Check out Formspring and other places where you can post anonymously. I think there are many people who want answers to questions but want to keep it private (think about medical conditions, etc...). Imagine if all of the searches (or places you went online) was suddenly public too.

      Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    That's a great point to take into consideration, but I'm of the opinion that Internet users who take advantage of anonimity are not always counter to the same Internet users who enjoy sharing their identity online. Some Internet users do both, separating their anonymous activities and identity-sharing activities. I don't think either one will overtake the other due to the huge range of activities and networks that the Internet provides us. Most probably both will grow stronger, providing different benefits to different users for different activities.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kirk Skodis
    Mitch Joel

    I think for now, only stunt advertising (like BK) might work if only for its remarkable value.

    Anonymous consumer reviews may be more honest, but their value to others decreases which defeats the purpose.

    BTW - How do you target the anonymous web? I guess we know the demographics of the sites (Formspring: 15-18, I'm guessing predominantly male) but can it go deeper than that?

    Reply
  • As soon as I read the headline on this, the first thing that jumped to mind was this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you%27re_a_dog

    And the fact that this was from 1993. So, as you said Mitch, anonymity online is clearly nothing new.

    In reading the actual post and the comments, I was reminded of a discussion/debate I had in Second Life about, well, Second Life (social media being nothing if not self-referential.) It was a talk about behavioural research within Second Life, and it what struck me at the time was the really obvious split in the way some people in the conversation related to the idea of being surveyed or targeted within Second Life. I remember one guy in particular who was quite insistent that he would respond differently to a survey conducted within Second Life because his avatar had a truly different life than him, and would therefore have different opinions and habits.

    I found this a bit weird at the time, but my take away from it was that behaviour and by extension marketing are very contextual. In other words, just because someone fits the demographic profile of a twenty-something beer drinker or a fifty-something hemorrhoid cream buyer in the 'real world' doesn't mean they can be pitched on those things when they are killing trolls in WoW or engaged in intense debate on a controversial subject on some anonymous forum.

    To me it's all about context of the activity -- what messages are going to resonate with people participating in a particular thing at a particular time? What constitutes appropriate conversation or interruption in that context?

    Reply
  • How do you feel about the concept of anonymity in general and as it relates to the Internet? and how do you believe the anonymity of the internet compares with other forms of communication.

    Reply
    • I think it is tied into freedom of expression, but with a global scale. This makes it scary to most (because of how big, loud and overbearing it can be). I do see it as a good thing - so long as there is context (as Jay Moonah expressed in his comment above) and so long as it is done with hurt or discrimination.

      Reply
  • Posted by Ciprian Rusen
    Mitch Joel

    I think the divide between the two groups will grow more and more.
    For example, there are people who don't use Facebook because it doesn't allow them to remain anonymous & lots of personal information is shared with the world (especially if you don't pay attention to security settings) and others who use it just because it is open & allows you to show/share yourself to the world.

    However, I do think the group of anonymous will be much smaller than the other group.
    They will be more like the "rebels" of the web - and the companies who know how to reach them, will gain some loyal followers.

    Reply
    • Just remember that those who started to be candid and transparent online (back when online social networks weren't even a glimmer in the Internet's eye) through Blogs and online social networks were also seen as the fringe or rebels. Not how that tide has shifted. Who is to say that it might not shift back?

      Reply
  • Posted by Luis F. Mejia
    Mitch Joel

    Obviously marketers should be present in anonymous groups. But their communication strategy must be adapted accordingly to fit that market segment. Discrete or obnoxious depending on what anonymous group they are addressing. All Social Groups, Clubs, Religious or Political inclinations anonymous or not expect their participants to conform to their “thinking” the Ayatollah syndrome. Remember the bar-code that appeared in the rear wind spoiler of Ferrari's F1 cars some years ago when cigarette advertising was banned? Anonymously still read Marlboro. One kind of discrete anonymity. Marketers must adapt.

    Reply
    • Adapt and be open to the trends. Meaning: how do people want to communicate and share ideas? Are ideas better is they come through anonymously? How does our world change and evolve if this does push beyond a small segment? All things to consider.

      Reply
      • Posted by Luis F. Mejia
        Mitch Joel

        Where there is gold, we dig. How we go about it depends on the composition of the soil. Drilling, blasting, wading, we'll get to it. We all must adapt to get the market.

        Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    I'd love to know what you're thinking as it relates to the drive toward more anonymity and personal branding. From the personal branding perspective, it seems that the more you do to build your personal brand by sharing and putting content out there, the better off you are.

    Over time you gain a certain reputation and have generated some level of credibility, but that can also mean you're put into a box, so to speak.

    But what if you want to re-tool or change your brand up? Sometimes it's not as easy for someone to break out of the mold. Or is it?

    I think this is why some move to an anonymous presence. There's more freedom to experiment and make mistakes.

    Reply
    • I don't know that it has to do with anonymity and personal branding as much as it has to do with how many new platforms are coming out that play on the anonymity aspect of the Web. Wikileaks, Formspring and Chatroulette were the real inspiration to the "what is happening here?" thought that led to this Blog post.

      Reply
  • Posted by karim kanji
    Mitch Joel

    Imagine the blood vessels popping as marketers and retailers try and figure out what to do with data that remains anonymous.

    Reply
    • ...and the first battle-cry will be that you can't trust opinions or content because it is anonymous... back to square one (they said the same thing about Bloggers and peer reviews when they first came on the scene).

      Reply
  • Posted by Gord
    Gord

    Many people seem to love the power to interact on a website (celebrating the democratization of communication) without appreciating the consequences of permanently associating their identity with their commentary. In the past, more traditional social interactions prevailed, which were characterized by rarity; rarity of copies, because replication was more difficult, and relative inaccessibility, because there were more barriers to information. This heightened the sense of responsibility for words, while allowing for a careless word because the consequences were mitigated by the communication's rarity. One could argue that the Internet today is to the phone or the newspaper what mass print media was to hand copied books: a wide open medium that threatened to reduce the credibility and value of communication. Society eventually learned the true value of mass print media in comparison to earlier media. I think we are in an adolescent stage of understanding the Internet and have not full faced its limitations as a medium. Its accessibility and convenience reduces the value of its information.

    People today are increasingly abandoning careful thought in the name of free speech, and are becoming more likely to speak carelessly, even if it borders on slander. They expect to do so without consequence because it is their democratic right. Online, they routinely use offensive language and spread unfounded truths about others on the basis of hearsay.

    In our current regulatory and ethical environment, this both increases the risks to those who speak without care (the risks of litigation) and reduces the value of self-expression, because the communication is no longer rare. I think some social media communication should be considered in a different category: junk speak. It should be considered an arena of thoughtless, toothless, frivolous communication that has no meaning or consequence - no better than the tabloids. Let people flap their gums, and educate children that it is no more than junk speak. In this kind of scenario there would be no need to require identity disclosure, because the words mean nothing and have no consequence. The value of words would be preserved because the rarity of words in traditional communication would be preserved, even heightened, just as the value of traditional communications was heightened when society saw through mass print media. We’re not there yet.

    Reply
    • This is a deep comment, Gord. I see hints of influence from people like Andrew Keen (read Cult of the Amateur) and Nicholas Carr (read The Shallows) in there. My additional thought would be that people are smart. Smart content rises. Junk is known to be junk (whether it's popular or not). Prior to the social channels, we had hopes that publishers and editors would do that sorting work for us. Now, we rely on The Wisdom of Crowds. That doesn't make it bad... it just makes it different.

      Thanks for adding.

      Reply
  • Posted by Lisa Stockwell
    Mitch Joel

    Anonymity kind of goes against your theory in your earlier post "I'm a Creep" that most of us want to be acknowledged. But I suppose in some cases, leaving anonymous posts in various places might replace watching tv or playing online games as a form of entertainment.

    The one place anonymity has to be honored is in medical forums or other social media platforms used by medical professionals or institutions, so people can discuss personal health issues openly and gain new insights without identifying themselves.

    As I write this comment, I'm trying to decide if my purpose is to be recognized or to engage in the debate and wait to see if and how others respond. When you're turned on by new ideas, sometimes it's enough to be part of the discussion. And chances are pretty good that no one will take the time to check out who we are anyway.

    This is another good debate to get us thinking about why we do spend time online in conversation with people we may never meet.

    Reply
  • Posted by Phil O'Brien
    Mitch Joel

    I think a natural extension of anonymity - when applied to your network - is that you will be "judged by the company you keep". As a first stage effort, I have turned my connections in LinkedIn to "Your connections are not allowed to view your connections list." It's not that I don't like my connections (I personally know them all!) - but the on-line crowd for someone my age (47) and British (not as web-friendly/gregarious as our North American friends) - is a little eclectic. If you took ALL "the company I keep" - I'd be pretty happy at you judging me in the round. I hope the current early days of "social networking" - with our mistakes being magnified (so what if we have a great night out once in a while) and the company we keep (so - only 5% or my real Personal Network is on-line) don't send us all back to anonymity. Great blog - thanks Mitch.

    Reply
  • Posted by Teresa Basich
    Mitch Joel

    Great post, Mitch, and wonderful comments to boot. I personally struggle with a regular desire to create an anonymous life for myself around here, as it's where I started years ago, and what I'm most comfortable with. In my current role, the things I say and "do" on the web directly impact my professional life, making it imperative that I keep my cool and remain relatively professional at all times. While I chose this direction for myself, I do feel the stress of not being able to always speak my mind.

    Whether it's the opportunity to develop a totally different persona or just be completely unfiltered, there's a big draw to anonymity on the web, and theres always been. I see it growing in value, though, as people start seeing more and more negative consequences to their online sharing and actions. Where I think things will get tricky for marketers is approaching these networks where people want to live outside the bounds of reality, and that includes being marketed to. I see an even higher barrier to entry popping up in these anonymous pockets of the web, and an increased need to tread carefully with the people involved.

    Lots to think about here, as always. Thank you. :)

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Reading this post after reading: http://www.twistimage.com/blog/archives/pay-attention-to-the-future-of-the-internet-today/ really puts things into perspective for me.

    And now thinking about it some more the anonymous movement is something really to watch for.

    I think when people click and realize how much google knows about you for example then you'll see more and more products and services that let you move through the online world without leaving a mark.

    Reply
  • Posted by Rob Playford
    Mitch Joel

    I would have thought that the younger generation these days would be pretty savvy as to what they upload online. As we see accounts of bullying on the rise through social media outlets such as facebook, i’m sure many of them could imagine the possible repercussions.

    I can definitely see why many are moving from facebook as it seems it’s becoming the norm for all ages now. The whole family on FB! i’m definitely sure the young un’s of the family wouldn’t want that and would rebel and find a more underground and anonymous social movement.

    Reply
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