Social networks put identity at the center of our online lives. Is it too late to turn back?
It’s not fair to judge a new social network (or app) right after it launches; it’s like dismissing a restaurant for its irritating clientele on opening night, when the only people eating are the owner’s friends and the press. But I don’t think it’s the first-night crowd that makes Secret, a new semi-anonymous confession app, an utterly paralyzing nightmare. It’s something deeper: It’s that the app shows us, for the first time, what anonymity looks and feels like on a post-Facebook internet.
Facebook’s most basic and influential accomplishment was the establishment of the first true public identity service on the internet. Before Facebook, anonymity was the default: Using your real name was optional and often pointless, a burden both for you and the communities you became a part of. Before social networking, the consumer internet and its major hubs were best understood as frontier territories: Everybody was perpetually new in town, crowds of fresh strangers just shaking hands and exchanging stories. It was both exhilarating and limiting; it opened new forms of expression, some of which are threatened by the internet’s new insistence on real identity. It also narrowed how we saw the internet, and made it feel like a distant, separate place. An escape.
Now over a billion people use Facebook every month, most with their real names. When I meet someone new, there’s a very good chance I can find them on the site, or on LinkedIn, or elsewhere through a Google search. Real identity is now the internet’s default setting. Anonymity is the deviation — the internet hasn’t criminalized it, exactly, but Facebook has at least made it seem more illicit. Consider: YouTube doesn’t even want anonymous comments anymore. YouTube!