Some worry about what can go wrong, but there's a lot to like about anonymity
There are a growing number of social media apps that encourage anonymity. Popular services such as Ask.fm, Secret, Whisper and Yik Yak allow people to post under an assumed name, or no name at all. A new one, called Rooms, is actually owned by Facebook -- the very company that popularized the "real-name culture."
Plenty of discussions about these services focus on the risks, but I am going to present the positive side. There is a reason why they are popular and there are some advantages to being able to post anonymously.
Most importantly, anonymity frees you from having to worry about your "permanent record."
The good side of anonymity
Online safety experts have repeatedly warned people to think about their reputation before posting, because something you post on a service like Facebook can come back to haunt you later. And I'm not just talking about rude or harassing comments or pictures of you abusing substances, but things like sharing opinions that might not be popular among your friends or future employers. When you don't have to put your name on a comment, you're more likely to say what you really think, even if it's politically incorrect within your circle of friends.
At a panel I moderated at the recent Family Online Safety Institute, or FOSI, conference, Secret's Dave Willner said that people sometime use anonymous apps to share good news so it's not seen as bragging. It's common, he said, for people to use Secret to post about a great new job, a raise or to satisfy a burning desire to share news that's not final or official.
When you sign up for Secret, you give the app access to your phone's contact list and optionally your Facebook friend list, so what you post is shared with people you know even though they don't know it's you. You can also share with people nearby so there is either a personal or location affinity with the people in your circle.
But Secret users don't even have a profile or username, which means that others can't form an opinion about you based on what you say because there is no "you" attached to the comments. People would have focus on what you said, not who you are or what you typically say. The service prohibits naming people in comments, except public figures.
Dealing with demons
All of the anonymous apps allow you to share things that might be uncomfortable to discuss if people knew it was you. You might desperately need support if you just lost your job or broke up with a partner even if you don't want people to know. Perhaps you're having troubles at home, work or school and want feedback on the way you're interacting with your partner, parent, sibling, co-workers, boss, teacher, etc.
Apps like Secret, Whisper, Ask.FM and Yik Yak are wonderful ways to discuss things like substance abuse, illnesses, obsessions, religious doubts, sexual orientation and other issues you might not want to disclose.
Level playing field
Yik Yak CEO Tyler Droll said his service "levels the playing field and gives everyone an equal voice."
On Facebook, he said, "the popular kids have more influence." On Yik Yak, "the quietest kid in the class can be the funniest and the person with 20 Twitter followers can now reach a huge audience."
Droll said that it puts the focus back on content rather than who's saying it. Yik Yak, which is popular on college campuses, enables you to anonymously interact with people nearby.
Until recently, Ask.fm was based in Latvia and enabled people to ask questions about anything. Unfortunately, it was associated with some negative experiences, including bullying and the spreading of false rumors, before being acquired by IAC.
In an interview, Ask.FM's new CEO Doug Leeds, who also runs Ask.com, said that the company reached an agreement with the attorneys general of New York and Maryland to establish a safety center and hire a chief trust and safety officer among moves to better police its service.
Ask.fm's new chief safety officer, Catherine Teitelbaum, said that, while questions can be asked anonymously, they aren't posted until answered by someone who discloses his or her identity.
On a recent visit to their website, I noticed that most questions are not at all inflammatory. "If you were going to be stuck on an island with three celebrities, which three would you choose?" strikes me as a pretty innocent question, as does "Where in the world would you like to visit" or "What's the best movie you've seen lately?"
Sure, you could ask "Am I pretty?" and perhaps get some pretty cruel answers, but you're also likely to get some kind ones as well. There are still some things that I personally find distasteful, but that's also true on Facebook, Twitter and, for that matter, the comments sections of many online news sites.
The law's long arm is still there
It's also important to remember that anonymity doesn't shield you from the law. Even though they don't disclose it to other users, some anonymous services do know your true identity and can be compelled to respond to binding orders to reveal that information to law enforcement. There are also other ways for cops to track users, such as IP addresses or cell phone records, and there are plenty of criminals in jail who thought they were anonymous.
To repeat a phrase I used in the title of a previous article, these services do have their challenges, but anonymous is not synonymous with ominous.
This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and on SafeKids.com