anonymous

It’s the hour of anonymity. I mentioned this yesterday when writing about new website Startups Anonymous, but the trend deserves a deeper exploration.

The two biggest apps riding the anonymous wave are, of course, Whisper and Secret. Whisper saw a summer of hype, leading it to $24 million in financing and a frothy $75-$100 million valuation. Secret is having its moment in the spotlight. Or, I suppose, the shadowy corners, or wherever it is that anonymity platforms go when they get famous for hiding people’s identities.

They aren’t the only ones out there. You can also point to Lulu, Anomo, Startups Anonymous, and every product on this list. We’re all putting paper bags on our heads and happily sending out incognito secrets to the world.

Like all other trends on the web, this is not the first time we’ve seen this. In the 90s, all the first virtual networks were anonymous, whether chat room websites, online communities, or Internet message boards. Although early social networks like SixDegrees and Friendster were not anonymous, Myspace came along and allowed elements of anonymity with fake names and fake pictures.

That didn’t last long.

A social network profile soon defaulted to a “known self.” In other words, it became the norm that users had to tie their online presence and offline identities.

Facebook disallowed pseudonyms, formalized profiles, and originally required vetting through university email addresses. Gone were MySpace’s annoying bright banners, sparkly star backgrounds, witty usernames, and hot pink Comic Sans fonts. On Facebook, all the identities were exposed, and even the status update bar put your name automatically before it.

The emphasis on the “true self” opened the door for social networks to become much more than just a place for teens and bands to go waste time. It allowed Facebook and the networks that came after to attract users of all ages from around the world. It turned these platforms into personal brand building tools, marketing platforms for advertisers, and powerful communication channels.

When Twitter came along, tying a Twitter profile to a real offline identity made sense. Facebook, Friendster, and SixDegrees had set the precedent. Arguably, Facebook succeeded and scaled across generations and geographies because it required a user to be identified and MySpace did not.

Twitter followed suit. Except for the occasional parody account, the majority of users represented their true selves, whether that self was a corporation, a business, a celebrity, a politician, or an average Joe.

The known and identified self became the norm for interacting with one another on social networks. Anonymity stayed relegated to the comments sections and website forums, where it had always resided.

It seems natural that now we’re facing a backlash. There’s a desire to return to the early days of the Web when online was the space we could go to not be ourselves. But this time, we want to take the power of our social networks with us.

If the popularity of the Secret app is any indication, people want to be able to explore and move about their social circles without anyone tracking them. They want to say things to their friends and have no one know. They want to read their friends anonymous confessions in return. They want the social and the secrecy. They want it all.

In our attempt to erase our own social footprints, we turned to ephemerality first. Whenever people talked about the power and potency of Snapchat, they inevitably referred to its “ephemerality.”

The general consensus was that teens were intoxicated by the disappearing picture effect. That they had become so hardened to the social world, seen the trials and tribulations of rooting a self in an online presence, how something like sexts could ruin someone’s life, how cyber bullying, revenge porn, silly drunk pictures with friends, and other online activity could risk their future jobs and college acceptances. They learned from a young age that the things you said or did online could haunt you.

Of course this generation would crave the ability to erase their social movements as soon as they happened. But what we didn’t expect was that they wouldn’t be the only ones. Few could have predicted that a seemingly inconsequential picture messaging app would keep spreading, slowly creeping into older generations and other groups, much like Facebook. It turns out that in this case, ephemerality would be the common denominator that attracted the masses to a communication tool.

Ephemerality removes consequence and weight, makes each message less important, and allows it to be more silly and playful. It reduces the significance of an “online” action and therefore gives the user a lightness of being, a fluidity of identity.

It’s the power to erase your social footprint as soon as it happens, and all the freedom that comes with that. Not being able to be tracked or defined or pinned down or stuck in a static sense of self or forced to conform to rigid social norms lest you be punished.

Ephemerality was like the gateway drug. But do you know what enables your freedom of online self even more than ephemerality?

Anonymity.

After all, anonymity leaves no footprint at all. If you’re anonymous you could be anyone, do anything, say anything, seemingly without consequence. It’s even more weightless than ephemerality, but better yet, it doesn’t disappear.

With anonymity, if the network effects are strong enough you can watch your action ricochet through the online world, infecting people’s minds and beliefs and feelings, if only for the brief moment they read your message.

The networks effects are the reason Secret has skyrocketed to such short fame, even though Whisper came long before and does almost the exact same thing. Secret’s one difference is key. It tells you when a secret shared is from your friend or friend of friend circle.

That’s crucial and potent. When you’re reading a secret, you can imagine it’s someone you know or have met or perhaps is only once removed from you.

When you yourself publish a secret, you get the titillation of knowing it will impact your world and your contacts. It will be read by your friends. That social impact can all be done without repercussions, good or bad, for you.

It’s not truly anonymity. It’s pseudo-anonymity. You can speak from your own identity, to your own network, without anyone knowing.

How long will the trend stick around? Sam Altman had a very thoughtful post over on his blog about anonymity’s inevitable demise. He blames the trolling, the negativity, the gossip. He likens its decay to a “Mean Girls-style burn book.” Like Altman, others have already downloaded Secret, gotten over it, and sworn it off forever. 10 days. Fastest hype cycle ever.

But Altman may be denouncing anonymity’s power too soon. As a feature of a virtual network, its long-lasting success depends on whether humans really need an anonymous space to represent the sides of themselves they can’t show elsewhere. If anonymity — or pseudoanonymity — fulfills a deep part of our personal narratives, then Secret and Whisper will only be the first wave of anonymous apps.

Given the recent history of media and the web, it certainly seems like anonymity taps into something important in people’s senses of themselves. It has a regular place in the traditional print media world, whether it’s the anonymous “embarrassing moments” section of Cosmopolitan or newspapers’ “Dear Abby” advice columns.

Online, it was an original tenet of virtual communities, and a core part of many virtual games. It was a recent as 2008 that we were starting to consider what an online world without anonymity meant. That’s how much of a part of our web experience anonymity played.

Mobile simply taps into that same need for anonymous interactions, makes it easier for the average person to spill such confessions, and ties it to a network that is one’s own.

The power of that shouldn’t be underestimated, even if an app like Secret might dissolve due to rancor. There could be other technologies or programs with different constraints that harness anonymity of users and keep it from descending into trolling. Anonymous networks are a place where people can go to say what they might not say elsewhere.

Of course, if anonymity is not an integral human need, then it’s a passing fancy. It will be a fashion that will run its cycle like any other.