By Jim Edwards
If you ever used a fake screen name that you’d be horrified to be linked to in real life — like “sexybaby69,” for instance — rejoice:
There has been a huge U-turn in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s thinking about “real identity” and anonymous behavior on the web. Now, he seems to believe that the pendulum has swung too far against anonymity and maybe it’s time to once again let people do things in secret on the web.
Facebook is planning to allow people to use some of its apps anonymously, Bloomberg reports.
This change — in terms of web culture — would be a huge historic shift, part of the three-decade arc in online history.
The backstory: In the early days of mass-usage of the web, during the mid to late 1990s, one of its core tenets was that people could get online and, by and large, do whatever the heck they wanted without anyone linking their behavior to the internet. All you needed was a made-up screen name. AOL, for instance, once had a thriving business that consisted of dozens and dozens of sex chat rooms, where people “cybered” with each other using names like “sexybaby69.”
(I’ve taught a class at NYU for years, and in the early 2000s it was common to encounter students using personal email accounts like “[email protected]”; only in the mid-2000s did people seem to change over to Gmail accounts with a name that resembles their real one.)
Dungeons & Dragons v. the ‘real word’
This, obviously, had both good and bad consequences. The good part was that it allowed people to explore secret identities or weird hobbies online (there was a LOT of Dungeons & Dragons-type stuff) but the web was also largely a trivial experience, given that it was dominated by fictional identities that had no “real world” relevance.
Facebook and Google changed all that. Google made information about people easier to find; and it made the web a cookie-rich environment, which meant that users could be tracked and remembered by web sites. All of a sudden, “sexybaby69” began leaving footprints all over the web for anyone who wanted to follow them.
In 2004, Zuckerberg made “real identity” the core of the Facebook offering. It was originally designed as a literal “face book” where college students could look up each other to match names to faces. Real ID has huge advantages: You can engage in meaningful financial transactions if your real ID guarantees who you are; “sexybaby69” didn’t even have a credit card.
‘Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’
Zuckerberg hated the idea of anonymity, or having multiple web identities. He famously told David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
Bloomberg notes that there are real problems with real ID, however. It means you can never let your hair down at a party again without your boss finding out:
At the time of Facebook’s founding, there was no such thing as real identity online. Facebook became the first place where people met one another as themselves, and the company was stubborn about asking users to sign in and share material with their own names. A Facebook account became a sort of passport to the rest of the Web, and with its success came new problems. No teenager wants to share insane party pics with a group of friends that may include his or her parents and teachers. And dissidents in parts of the world where speaking freely can be incriminating avoided the service in favor of alternatives such as Twitter, where real names are optional.
That’s one reason why apps like Whisper and Snapchat have proven so popular. Facebook’s real ID crusade created a gap in the market for apps that want to bring back the anonymous, wild west nature of the 1990s web. Bloomberg says Zuckerberg has finally figured out that there is a place for anonymity on the web:
Former Facebook employees say identity and anonymity have always been topics of heated debate in the company. Now Zuckerberg seems eager to relax his old orthodoxies. “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,” he says. “If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden.” Paper will still require a Facebook login, but Zuckerberg says the new apps might be like Instagram, which doesn’t require users to log in with Facebook credentials or share pictures with friends on the social network. “It’s definitely, I think, a little bit more balanced now 10 years later,” he says. “I think that’s good.”
Note that Zuckerberg isn’t saying that there will be a new anonymous section of Facebook. Rather, as he noted on his recent earnings call, Facebook will be developing a set of standalone apps that users can use with made-up or anonymous screen names.