Integrity and Anonymity

The great philosopher Mark Zuckerberg once claimed, “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Even pretending for a moment he's not in the business he's in, I have to disagree.

As I've written about before, having multiple identities for yourself is key to keeping a separation between your public and private life, especially when it comes to the very public by default web. It gives you privacy control that's independent of the software you're using, and if enabled and utilized in the right way, lets you have very nuanced control of the mass broadcasting you do online.

Some people believe that anonymity itself brings out the worst in people, or that having different “faces” for different social contexts implies dishonesty. Yet there is nothing inherent about anonymity that says it has to be used for bad things, just as there is nothing inherent about cars that says they must be used for fleeing a crime scene. Anonymity may offer the bully new ways to bully, or the liar new ways to deceive others, but the tool itself is existentially meaningless and lacks an intrinsic purpose.

So it's not explicitly the hammer's invented shape that defines its uses (though it certainly helps). Rather it's the history of people using hammers to nail things; of people lending and selling hammers to people who just need to nail something; of it being used for little else other than nailing. If, however, one day people started using it as a murder weapon, and then traded them with other murderers, and encouraged others to use hammers to murder, so much to the point that hammer ownership was criminalized or heavily regulated, the hammer's meaning will have changed to “murder weapon.” In that extreme hypothetical case, many people could lose out on the ability to hang pictures on the wall or build houses just because certain people hijacked the hammer's use case and caused larger problems with it.

In short, it's all how we use it. I believe digital anonymity can create more good than harm, and that's why I built software that supports it. And in three years of running, we've had to take exceedingly few technical measures to stop abuse. Otherwise, the product's design and social cues like are enough to grow a vibrant, welcoming community without real-life identities.

When this and many similarly-minded products exist, you easily see that Zuckerberg's idea that “having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end” is fueled by ulterior motives and not empirical evidence. Facebook's business model rests on us divulging a picture of our entire selves so we can be accurately targeted for ads; if we don't subscribe to that, they have no more product to sell. The stakes for him are high.

So if we want to see an internet with strong personal privacy and individual freedoms, we need more products and services that encourage it. We need businesses that defend it and give it a good name. We need fewer companies building products on the premise that privacy is quaint relic of the past, and fewer CEOs spreading narratives that mislead us into accepting their misguided vision for the future.

I could've published these thoughts pseudo- or anonymously and not lost any integrity, because we know that integrity doesn't mean telling every reader your professional history, what bands you like, what you did last night, or which political candidate you like. Rather, ultimately it's individual ideas and the actions they inspire in a person that determine who they really are.