Saturday, September 24, 2011

Online Anonymity and the Reinvention of the Social Web

The recent Facebook announcements from this years F8 conference forced quite a few of us to step back and reassess our thoughts on the social web and more specifically, our individual presence on the Internet. Up to this point how we present ourselves online has been largely up to us. The way people picture us is determined by avatars or profile photos that we select. We tell people what our personal interests are through our profiles and postings. We even control our anonymity by choosing whether or not to even use our real names and ages. On the Internet we are who we want to be, or at least what we want other people to think we are.

But what if that changed?

Isn't the Internet simply an extension of society itself? The people we interact with at work, the gym, or the grocery store, are the same people we interact with on the Internet, albeit on a much larger scale. So what would happen if people were who they really are online? What if people who saw you on Facebook or Google+ were seeing the real you and not just the version you wanted to share?
Hello, my name is WickedHarleyDude53...

Think about it. We have no qualms about clearly identifying ourselves in our daily lives. Can you picture meeting someone in Starbucks and having them introduce themselves as "curlygurl89"? If we have a live connection with someone we feel some obligation, moral or otherwise, to truthfully identify ourselves. Once we lose that tangible connection through the Internet, we seem to lose that obligation as well.

Following the introduction of Google+ in June, and Mark Zuckerberg's announcements at F8, I believe the social web is moving ever slowly towards the elimination, or at least the discouragement of online anonymity. Facebook wants you to be so proud of your life story that you will willingly publish your photos, every book you read, even what you eat for dinner, online for people to see. Google+ wants you to use your real name so much that they have a Name Policy to enforce it.

Yes, the argument can be made that no social network can ever force you to share information about yourself that you don't want to, and that argument is correct. What happens though when you give a web site or application permission to post on your behalf to your profile, and you do that for a handful of other web sites or applications? Do you remember or keep a list of everyone you've ever given your name to or shared personal information with? What's the result of sharing personal information with enough web sites and applications? Two words...

Passive sharing.

Understanding those two words will bring about different reactions from different people. Those already leery or suspicious of the Internet may feel fear. Others may feel the need to simply pay closer attention to who they share information with, and still others may think, "Yes! Finally!". Understand though that the day may come when our everyday lives are so connected with our online selves that the line begins to blur. We can already meet a friend at a bar for a beer and easily let the Internet know where we are and even what we're drinking. Now imagining giving a web site permission to post this on our behalf so we don't have to. I believe that day is coming.

What do you think about the online version of you? Does it match up closely to the real you? Should it? Leave your thoughts in a comment.

I promise I won't sell them to Zuckerberg. :)


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