For some time now, Facebook (s fb) co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has been the poster boy for “real identity” on the internet, and therefore also one of the bad guys for those who believe that anonymity and pseudonymity are important principles worth upholding. But lately, there have been increasing signs that Zuckerberg’s views on the topic are evolving — including his alleged interest in Secret — and that he has come to see the value and utility of allowing some form of anonymity, even within the Facebook universe. And that’s a good thing.
The Facebook CEO became a lightning rod for anonymity proponents based on comments he made during an interview with David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, in 2010. At the time, Zuckerberg said he believed that “the days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly” because having two identities “is an example of a lack of integrity.”
These comments were later amplified by Zuckerberg’s sister Randi, then the marketing director for the social network, who said at a conference that “online anonymity has to go away” because it encourages bullying behavior. “I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors,” she said — criticisms that are similar to those often made about Secret and Whisper and other popular anonymous apps.
Facebook has tried to stamp out anonymity
The impression left by Mark Zuckerberg’s comment to Kirkpatrick was that the network was going to do its best to stamp out anonymity wherever it appeared, and that’s more or less exactly what it proceeded to do for the next couple of years. Along with Google (s goog) — which at the time was requiring the use of a “real identity” on its fledgling Google+ network — Facebook forced users to register with what it believed to be a real name (although it didn’t ask for proof), and removed accounts that were registered with what it determined to be fake-sounding names or pseudonyms.
As a number of anonymity activists pointed out, along with sociologists and online behavior experts like Microsoft researcher danah boyd (who spells her name with all lower-case letters), Zuckerberg’s views about the duplicity of maintaining multiple identities make perfect sense when you happen to be a rich white male CEO, but can be dangerous for those who don’t fit that profile — especially those who are living a double life by necessity, for personal or professional reasons.
To take just one example, Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that Facebook’s practice actually made it much easier for authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt and Tunisia to track down dissidents and subject them to all kinds of harassment. Gay users who had not come out to their families or employers also wrote about their dislike of the “real identity” rules, as did some whose political or religious beliefs might subject them to harassment.
Many veterans of online communities argued that anonymity and pseudonymity aren’t bugs in the system, but crucial aspects of the way we behave online — and not just marginalized groups, but all kinds of people who prefer to express certain thoughts or engage in certain activities that they don’t want attached to their professional or public lives. That can have negative aspects to it, obviously, but it also serves a fundamental human need.
Signs of a new perspective emerging
In an interview earlier this year with Bloomberg Businessweek, on the 10th anniversary of Facebook’s birth, Zuckerberg gave some of the first public clues that his beliefs about the value of anonymity might be evolving. His comments came in the context of a discussion about popular anonymous apps like Secret and Whisper, and also about Facebook’s decision to leave acquisitions like WhatsApp and Instagram as standalone products — ones that don’t require real names or identities. New apps might follow this model rather than the Facebook-dictated real identity model, he suggested.
“I don’t know if the balance has swung too far, but I definitely think we’re at the point where we don’t need to keep on only doing real identity things. If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden. [Our view on anonymity] is definitely, I think, a little bit more balanced now 10 years later.”
It seems unlikely that Zuckerberg will ever walk back its views on “real identity” when it comes to the big blue network that is the official Facebook universe — but it appears as though he is willing to experiment with other ways of behaving inside virtual communities on Instagram or other apps, and that is a positive step. Maybe some day the Facebook CEO will admit that anonymity isn’t a “lack of integrity” that needs to be corrected, but instead something fundamental about human beings that the company needs to adapt to and support.
Embedded below is a TED video of a talk that 4chan founder Christopher “Moot” Poole gave about the virtues of anonymity:
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / lofilolo and Scott Beale, as well as Thinkstock / daoleduc