When Facebook burst onto the scene in 2004, the Internet's culture of anonymity and pseudonymity, when strangers talked mainly behind screen names, changed drastically.
That is why recent reports that Facebook is exploring anonymity features like the ones used by mobile apps Secret and Whisper have raised more than a few eyebrows.
"It would, of course, be deeply ironic if Facebook moved in that direction," Clive Thompson, author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better," told NBC News. "Facebook's promise was that if people signed up with their real name, the quality of everyday discourse would be better."
A decade after the birth of Facebook (as well as the flood of social networks, like Instagram and Twitter, that followed) and we still have not reached Mark Zuckerberg's civil online utopia, despite the fact that many people now comment on the Internet using their real names.
Meanwhile, many users have flocked to Secret and Whisper to vent steam, make confessions or just make things up without fear of embarrassment or recrimination.
Both apps allow users to share secrets without sharing their identity. Whisper posts can sometimes read like laments overheard in a high school bathroom, while Secret offers more Silicon Valley gossip.
Whisper and Secret
Silicon Valley insiders are finding that Secret is sometimes a double-edged sword. After getting trashed on the app last month, Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth penned a post that ended with a condemnation:
"This is just hurtful without being helpful. It is invective without accountability. It is the true nature of Secret at scale."
What is with all of the gossip? It might have something to do with the fact that Secret initially shares your posts only within your social network, Thompson theorized. (A post can go viral outside of your network if enough of your friends share it).
"People have a sense that if they say something snarky about someone, they might actually hear it," he said.
Whisper, on the other hand, never knows your identity, creating a much more anonymous space for confessions. Both apps are home to plenty of inspirational platitudes.
It turns out that it's not just trolls who say nasty things under the cloak of anonymity. Last year, a study from researchers at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University found that most people who commented on the Internet anonymously engaged in both "anti-social" and "pro-social" activities — meaning they both said nasty things and gave people helpful advice.
"People don’t have the burden of their real-life identities attached to messages that they share on those apps," Ruogu Kang, one of the researchers behind the study, told NBC News. "People in my interviews, when they used their real identities on Facebook, they felt like they had to maintain a consistent self-image."
When their identities were known, she said, people were less likely to criticize others, help strangers and even share creative projects — all in fear of shattering the persona that they shared with their co-workers, friends and family.
Whisper and Secret
Like Kang, Thompson does not see the rise of anonymity apps as an inherently good or bad development.
"Anonymity on its own does not cause poor behavior," Thompson said. "What causes poor behavior online is lack of community standards."
That could explain the morass of insults in the comments section of random YouTube videos and the relatively civil behavior in certain sub-forums on Reddit where people see familiar usernames.
Whether or not they are part of a fad, Whisper and Secret have recently raised millions from investors — although it’s not clear how either might monetize their user base. (Talking to Forbes, one mobile ad exec wondered if anonymity apps might profit by sharing user information with advertisers, but not with other users).
In the end, these apps are not that different from the message boards of the early Internet or even PostSecret, a "ongoing community art project" that has been encouraging people to send in confessions since 2005. What has changed is the increased number of people on the Internet, the rise of Facebook and the ubiquity of smartphones.
"The need for anonymity has always been there," Kang said. "New technology, like smartphones, has helped people satisfy that need."
First published April 6 2014, 2:52 PM