Ignoring Anonymous Coward and a Rant on Anonymous Apps

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.

Anonymous Coward

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 until I read a long post by Austin Hill titled On your permanent record: Anonymity, pseudonymity, ephemerality & bears omfg! It was outstanding and referred to a tweet stream by @pmarca on the same topic.

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 and – 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.

  • Spot on post. Lots of this during bubble 1.0. I used to yell at reporters who actually read and amplified anonymous jerks. I usually pointed out that this is what goes on in Communist countries – some enormous percentage of East Germans were actually working for the Stasi, for example. It’s horrific, and thanks for posting this.

    • It’s gonna be a lot worse this time around. I can’t wait until Techcrunch and others start using “anonymous source” as a credible source for a story.

      • thats my worry is that mobile just makes this worse and can drag anyone in…the hooks an toxicity are so dangerous.

    • Alan I agree that the community listening to anonymous jerks is bad. Anonymous spying & informants like were used extensively by the Stasi were also horrendous for society. (A great read is the Der Spiegel article http://j.mp/1p4sjai) One must also remember that encryption, anonymity and pseudonymity are also the tools to protect citizens in these very represssive regimes. In our day we equipped Dr. Patrick Ball http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Ball with our anonymity tools (and some other software) when he went into Bosnia during the genocide to conduct data gathering. That data was later used when he testified against Slobodan Milosevic.

      I can tell you that I was very proud of anonymity technologies when Patrick testified knowing that we had helped him gather that data in an environment where is life was at risk regularly.

  • I don’t love these anonymous apps, and won’t participate.

    The best thing an organization can do for itself is to render the apps irrelevant by responding actively and visibly to concerns and challenges as they arise. In short, by building trust.

    I have no solution to how individuals can stay out of the fray. Sigh.

    #bsgreference #win

  • Brad,

    I agree with you and Austin. I also was the post he linked to from his story and what happened to me was just this moment of “uh, I totally understand why she felt safe to safe this here.”

    I think his suggestions were so spot on, if you really want to have an anonymous network that “could” possibly work, it needs to have repercussions and make it known that if you act against the rules then their are consequences.

    I have no expertise here, learning from all of you has been quite fascinating.

  • It’s amazing how much time we can spend trashing others… especially when there’s SO much to do……!

  • all this means nothing to me as i’d like to think i am mature enough to push it aside as you do…..but it deeply concerns me when i wear my father hat. My two – and soon to be 3 children are going to grow up in a world where this behaviour is mature and ubiquitous and they will be exposed to it at an age when i question their ability to maturely deal with it. That really concerns me.

    • I understand that concern. I don’t have kids so I’m tone deaf to the concern there, but as a kid who was regularly bullied (four-eyes, jew boy, nerd (back when nerd was an insult), and a whole bunch of others before I got physically big enough to stand up for myself) I can only imagine the mental stress of the anonymous hatred hits throw at each other, and how that will weave its way into society when they are adults.

  • Mark Suster wrote a nice piece on this topic yesterday as well if you didn’t see it.

    The only quibble I have with what you wrote is that we are responsible, maybe not to others but definitely to ourselves and, if religious, to our Gods. Yes, some people don’t care. But I believe what goes around comes around.

  • I just checked out whisper and it seemed to be a mixed bag. Some people saying very private things that they are afraid, to say in person. Some obvious trolls. A couple heart warming stories. Overall, after spending 5 minutes on it, it felt like an interesting place.

    • It might be an interesting place, but it is an “authentic” place? Is it real?

      • Why does that matter? Perhaps it’s more performative or perhaps it is more authentic. But do you not have an enjoyable reaction to a good movie even when there is nothing authentic about it?

        • A movie represents itself as entertainment and fiction. I’m not sure anonymous apps do.

          • I’m not sure that matters to me. They may simply not have realized yet that they are entertainment/fiction. Or perhaps they are a mix of fact and fiction which is hard to describe. Or perhaps the product is better if they cultivate the illusion that it is not entertainment.

  • As someone who has two teenage daughters that are using anonymity as a way to get past parents and do baaaad things, my belief is anonymity is a baaad thing.

    • Working hard at creating!

      Where I live we are dealing with major problems. Many of the people here just ignore the issues we are facing with drugs and mental illness. Gossip and foolishness seem to be the preferred past time.
      If I were you I would get a strong grip on your children before it’s too late! Whatever the cost make sure you know exactly what they are doing and when. They can have their *privacy* when the turn 21 and have earned it.

      • I think they’re fine but it sure ain’t makin it any easier. Snapchat is a tuffy

    • Frank, you might have missed some of the points in my article that discuss how anonymity in some cases (opting out in others) is also protecting my nieces from some of the dangers online. No easy answers – but I think saying anonymity is a bad thing misses so many of the positive uses of anonymous / pseudonymous technologies.

      • *blush* I replied to Brad’s post only. I admit I didn’t click through to the article.

  • It’s not “one size fits all” though. On HeyCrowd our users love the fact that voting on questions is anonymous since they can share their opinions without overthinking it and see all the stats from others. Anonymity here is very important to them. But if they want to create content (submit a question or post a comment) then they need some kind of profile, which could be a fictional one with pseudonym and the profile pic that they want. Most our users can be creative in that identity that they make for themselves, especially young users who prefer that to the facebook type of real identity. I loved it when I was younger too.
    Honestly in the case of Secret, I think it’s a good time for VCs/entrepreneurs and our ecosystem to reflect on the kind of community we are creating. I mean, the tools for saying things anonymously have been there, are still there and will always exist. You can also create a fake profile on Twitter and post whatever you want. The only difference with Secret is that it had attracted a large number of people from the tech/startup industry and that’s why it hurts. But formspring / ask.fm might have a worse impact among teenagers since it’s a combination of true identity profile / anonymous questions.

    • Agreed. I’m less focused on voting (I accept that there are many cases where voting should be anonymous) but on the commentary instead.

      • There are a lot of great uses of anonymity in networks, voting, commerce. I think Brad’s points about communities, communication and the negative sides of not being responsible to a community (even with a pseudonym if that is the community norm) are entirely valid though.

        I was hoping with my post to show some of the nuances of these and point out that it’s hard with a lot more room for innovation then the current apps are doing.

    • Working hard at creating!

      The problem is cleaning up after someone has tried to harm you. I’ve dealt with it and while electronically it is easy to delete an email address or do other clean up. There is still destruction left behind.
      The people who do this type of thing are very good at it. Many times the victims aren’t good at fending off the attacks!

  • Working hard at creating!

    “You can perform systematic character assassination without any consequences.”
    Also sharing computers and connections etc. makes it easier for people to cause these problems. The web is becoming wrought with such foolishness.
    It’s all about a person’s character. It takes a person with good character to see truth! And it takes a person with even better character to ignore foolishness. There are two kinds of people in this world – creators and destroyers! If someone listens to the kinds of things that destroy others then they are themselves destroyers. If someone listens to the good things that create a better world then they are themselves creators!
    The destroyers work their destruction in the real world same as in the virtual world. The web just makes it easier for people to prey on the stupid by manipulating them into helping with the destruction.
    It’s very hard to be a creator in today’s world. Ignoring the destroyers and the things they do is not easy. Falling victim to such people who are destroyer trash is tough to deal with. The creators need to stick together and help each other fend off this crap!

  • “selective permission based disclosure”, which Austin Hill talks about vis-a-vis dating, really resonates for me — it’s what we’re trying to do with Burner. People should be able to control their identities, but communities ulimately have the responsibility for the culture of their members.

  • This is an prescient post.

    Julie Ann Horvath (recently resigned from Github after a series of allegedly sexist incidents and continued harassment) went public with her problems with the company after a series of anonymous posts on Secret made ugly claims about her and her work.

  • Doug Gibbs

    I think everyone can agree, apps and even old time BBS that are totally anonymous are bad. There is no real discussion. It is useless, and pointless, but that does not stop people from wasting time.
    The real question with all this complaining, do you want these businesses shut down?Brad, are you asking your buddy, Mr. Polis to sponsor a bill censoring what can be said online?
    There is a basic human need to gossip and be negative. The web exists in the real world, so there are bad neighborhoods and places civilized people don’t go. The really sad thing is when good people like Kathy Sierra are chased off the web by this trolling.
    This sort of company is a bad business, and a poor investment. Because the discussion devolves into negative garbage, pretty soon it is the trolls trolling each other. That is no fun, so even they leave. The fact some of these companies were funded is amazing.

    • Re the question: “Brad, are you asking your buddy, Mr. Polis to sponsor a bill censoring what can be said online?” Nope – not at all. People can say whatever they want online. I have no interest in trying to control this. Nor do I want these businesses to be shut down – people can spend time on whatever they want.

  • Anonymice gorge themselves on emotional cheese and crap out slander. Capitalusts figure out a way to profit from the crap. Your thoughts are spot on IMO since this stuff must surely start at Self with the question “why”.

  • Mary-Margaret Walker

    I agree and typically ignore all of this for all of the same reasons. Everything you have stated about the behavior of opportunistic ranters, complainers and attackers and those who fuel the flames is spot on. And yes, it has all happened before and it will all happen again. I have three different reactions when these issues arise: 1. Whether anonymous, named or in person, we need to be more judicious in our communications. Those who can’t control their manners, emotions or behavior speak volumes about themselves. 2. I’ve wondered if the pressures to be wildly successful have pushed some of this to the surface. 3. Where do people with real problems go when they can’t speak out using their own name? The answer to all three questions is personal empowerment but we are not born with it. Many fear it. Some think it has a high price and others think it is too much work. The best anyone can do is to exemplify empowerment. I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think. – Socrates

  • RBC

    In many ways it is down to the moderator to stamp out the anonymous hating – if not directed at themselves, then that directed at other participants in the community. Kudos to you and Fred for creating cool places where people can come to discuss and enjoy themselves. Completely OT – highly recommend the New Yorker article – Is Amazon Bad for Books. Really interesting long-form writing, and food for thought given your latest endeavor. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/02/17/140217fa_fact_packer?currentPage=all

    • Thx for the New Yorker article – I had not read it. Definitely relevant.

  • I like Secret as a product. That said, there’s a lot of hate on there. I saw my name come up a handful of times. Even though I like the product, I also just chose to ignore it and focus on other things.

  • Jana

    Well, all of you people probably wont like me. I wrote an article in favor of these types of apps. I love your article Brad, I was blind perhaps and did not think about this side of the story. What I thought about Whisper is that it’s a startup, and the users help shape it, and it’s still in the shape stage. Yes,it’s sad how evil and cruel us humans can be. Yet I think there is still a possibility for the WhisperApp to shape into what I call a gift for humanity. They can keep it “supposedly anonymous” yet they have to insert more controls, and or rules. I think there is something to these apps and the founders and users just have not opened up our minds to what it is, because they are still trying to find it. And this is why we have startups, so we can find these hidden gifts. As you know often times, the startup turns into something else along the way. I have hope in humanity,but yeah,they need a little guidance,as they stumble around what the founders created. And the founders have to see what the users do and then shape it some more. Maybe it will never be possible to give humans so much freedom. Maybe we will always turn into monsters when they do. I’m not sure. I just like to have hope in startups and users, we need both of them to create!