The anonymity I know
Yesterday Sam Altman published a short post containing his thoughts on Secret, and also anonymity in general—namely that it breeds meanness, and that anonymous social networks are destined to decay and grow worse over time.
I strongly disagree. What I’ve observed is the opposite—that anonymity facilitates honest discourse, creates a level playing field for ideas to be heard, and enables creativity like none other.
"Anonymity" is itself a slippery term because people frequently use it to refer to everything that isn’t "real identity." Obviously identity is more nuanced than that (I prefer "prismatic”), but for some reason we choose to paint it in broad strokes comprised of two extremes. In the interest of simplicity, I’ll use anonymity to encompass the part of the spectrum that is not real identity, including pseudonymity and everything in between.
When I spoke at TED four years ago I concluded the talk with my concern that in the race to embrace social networking, anonymous communities were quickly going the way of the dinosaur, and that the world was on the verge of losing something incredibly valuable.
It’s an issue near and dear to me, as I’ve had the privilege of founding and presiding over one of the largest anonymous online communities—4chan—for more than a decade.
I was myself once ignorant of the benefits of anonymity. As a 15-year-old who spent his childhood and early teens hanging out in online chatrooms and forums, I wasn’t particularly drawn to the idea of anonymous contribution. When I encountered the inspiration for 4chan, a Japanese website called Futaba Channel, I found myself captivated by its unconventional imageboard format and how quickly content seemed to roll on and off the site—not its emphasis on anonymity and impermanence. Fascinated and frustrated by my inability to contribute (my Japanese is abysmal), I quickly translated the source code and threw it up for a few Internet friends to use.
The very things I overlooked as a teen quickly became the driving force behind the site, and are now deeply ingrained in its ethos as well as my own. Few communities have grown in size and come to influence mainstream culture as 4chan has, for as long as it has, and it is without a doubt the result of allowing people to interact without the burden of identity, and to share and explore new ideas together. For many, 4chan has become their “third place,” and provided a sanctuary away from the everyday stresses of home, school, and work life.
The combination of anonymity and ephemerality has fostered experimentation and creativity rarely seen elsewhere. It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content. Only ideas that resonate with the broader community persist, creating the most ideal conditions for the production of viral content, which established 4chan as one of the Web’s earliest “meme factories.”
The conversation is “raw” to say the least—almost everyone checks their filter at the door. The resulting dialogue is about as honest as it gets. In lieu of traditional barriers to membership, the community uses cryptic and crude language to regulate who can and cannot participate. On the surface this may seem offensive, but it’s often meant to do little more than keep newcomers on their toes and encourage they lurk and learn the house rules before participating.
Few sites give their users a platform to share ideas quite like 4chan’s—a virtual Speakers’ Corner—where anyone can express their opinions on equal footing. Every person who creates a thread has that thread appear at the very top of the index, and no amount of karma or social capital can save it from the depths of irrelevance. It’s ideas, not reputations, that shine here.
4chan isn’t without its problems and is by no means a utopia, but in many ways provides an accurate representation of who we are: flawed, imperfect. I see beauty in that, and something worthy of continued exploration.
As someone who has spent their entire adult life educating the public about the benefits of anonymity and advocating for alternatives to “real identity,” I’m simultaneously excited and hesitant about what the next few months might bring.
Snapchat has changed the game. Its success has demonstrated that given the right offering, there is in fact mainstream demand for products that incorporate anonymity and ephemerality, and I’ve watched with bated breath as it’s kicked off renewed interest and debate over their merits.
It feels like we’re on the cusp of a fever pitch to explore this new—well, rediscovered—terrain, with entrepreneurs, investors, and journalists all lining up to understand and capitalize on the opportunities that await. I welcome these expeditions, but pray we will see people create thoughtful products that truly reimagine identity for the digital age rather than simply incorporating “anonymity” and “ephemerality” as marketing buzzwords.
It’s bound to be an interesting ride. Whatever may happen, I’m grateful to have a front row seat.
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