Ignoring ‘Anonymous Coward’ — a rant on anonymous apps

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Suddenly, anonymous apps are all the rage again. Secret and Whisper are the two that have recently made headlines, but there’s a cockroach-like proliferation of them being funded by VCs.

As one of my favorite BSG quotes goes, “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”

I was generally ignoring this phase until I read a long post by Austin Hill titled On your permanent record: Anonymity, pseudonymity, ephemerality & bears omfg!

I’ve been trolled since I first started interacting with other humans online in the mid-1980s. The first time it happened was shocking to me. I was young (under 20), on a Usenet thread, and was part of what I thought was an interesting conversation. I no longer remember what the comment was that shook me up, but it was the equivalent of “Go fuck yourself with an axe, chop out your liver, and die.”

Yeah — I wasn’t ready for that. After a few years of being trolled, I learned to completely ignore it.

I recall discovering “Anonymous Coward” on Slashdot. After thinking someone had come up with a particularly clever user name, I realized that was their label for all “guests” who commented anonymously.

When FuckedCompany.com came out in 2000, it was startling at first, but then it quickly became predictable. If you were part of a company that was fucked, you knew it. But when confidential information started appearing on a daily basis, especially in contexts where companies were trying to do the right thing, it became upsetting. Eventually, like being told to go fuck yourself with an axe, I became numb to it and started ignoring it.

At this point in my life, I realize that it is all just noise. So, for me, I just ignore it.

It’s the same kind of noise that destroys lives. It’s so much easier to be cruel when hiding behind a wall of anonymity. We already know how much easier it is to be cruel over email versus in person. Now, put up an anonymous wall. Say anything you want. Release any confidential information you want. Lie about anything, since there is theoretically no way to trace it back to you. You are no longer accountable for what you say or do. You can say whatever you want, whether it is true or not. You can perform systematic character assassination without any consequences.

Every now and then, one of the anonymous apps gets hacked. All the user data gets revealed. In the past, there wasn’t enough critical mass of this for anyone to care. But this time around, there might be. And, and Austin says in his post, there is merely the illusion of anonymity here.

“FALSE EXPECTATION OF ANONYMITY: The security model for both these applications is horrendous and irresponsible. The give the user an illusion of privacy, encourage users to say things without the burden of identity (both in good or bad cases) — but then provide no real anonymity or privacy is deceptive.” 

Go read the whole thing — I won’t repeat it here. But if you think what you are putting up on these apps is really anonymous, then keep doing it at your own peril.

But why are you doing it? What is the value to you? What is the value to society? What is the value to anyone else? And what is the cost?

This isn’t a moral question. Do whatever you want. But ask yourself the question “why”.

If you think this is new and exciting, just remember all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

This story originally appeared on Brad Feld.


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