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Facebook's Toying With A Radical New Idea: Letting You Be Anonymous

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MARK ZUCKERBERG
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 18: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Newseum September 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg participated in an interview with James Bennet, editor in chief of the Atlantic, on 'the knowledge economy', including Zuckerberg's involvement in the immigration debate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) | Win McNamee via Getty Images

Through Facebook's decade-long history, one thing has been consistent: You had to use your real name to do anything on the website. But now, Mark Zuckerberg is suggesting that he's willing to loosen the reins on anonymity and let people use Facebook -- in some cases, at least -- without their real names.

The Facebook founder dropped that hint in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek for his company's 10th anniversary. "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," Zuckerberg said. "If you're always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden."

You can't currently use a fake name on Facebook. The social network would be within its rights to disable an account with the name "Princess Sparkle," for example, until the person could prove that they were in fact actually named that.

In the interview with Bloomberg, Zuckerberg did not detail in which specific ways the real-identity rule would be pulled back. But Facebook has already made a $1 billion experiment in anonymity with Instagram. Since its inception, the photo-sharing app has let its amateur photographers post under pseudonyms, and Facebook has left that part of Instagram alone since buying it. New pockets of Facebook that might allow anonymous sharing may come out of a new division called Facebook Creative Labs, which promises to introduce several new standalone Facebook apps. The first is a news app called Paper, to be released on Feb. 3.

To understand how radical a shift even a little anonymity would be for Facebook, you have to look back to 2004. Facebook entered the world asking prospective members to verify their true identities with a college email address, a demand that the biggest social network at the time, Myspace, never made. Facebook managed to bring order to a chaotic web where you could never be sure if a creeper lurked behind an AIM handle or a Myspace profile. Over the past few years, a Facebook login has become lock and key to much of the rest of the web, necessary to access apps like Tinder and comment on websites like HuffPost.

Now in 2014, Facebook faces an existential threat from Twitter and Snapchat, both of which allow people to post and share under fake names -- and compete for the attention of Facebook's audience. Facebook's core ideology in 2004 was authenticity, at least in how people were expected to identify themselves. Now Zuckerberg, who offered $3 billion to buy Snapchat only be rejected, sounds more like that app's 23-year-old app founder, Evan Spiegel.

"This notion of a profile made a lot of sense in the binary experience of online and offline," Spiegel said in a recent speech. "It was designed to recreate who I am online so that people could interact with me even if I wasn’t logged on at that particular moment. Snapchat relies on Internet Everywhere to provide a totally different experience. Snapchat says that we are not the sum of everything we have said or done or experienced or published – we are the result."

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