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Is social media stealing our online anonymity?

Even with carefully crafted avatars, is it reasonable to expect true anonymity in our Web lives? A Geekend contributor shares her thoughts on the subject.

It is often argued that people feel more free to say and do whatever they want on the Internet because they have a sense of anonymity. But as social media encourages us to be more open, and as Web technology now makes it very easy to link all aspects of a person's Internet life, anonymity on the Internet seems fleeting. Even with carefully crafted avatars, is it reasonable to expect true anonymity in our Web lives?

Like many people, I keep a separate Facebook page for my business life. I don't need clients to know what embarrassing shenanigans I might get into if I were the type of person to get into embarrassing shenanigans. More realistically, I don't need business partners to read the stupid stuff people I went to high school with and haven't seen in more than a decade write on my wall. For a long time, I tried to keep my blog entirely anonymous and totally separate from any of my professional writing. My double life was going well for a while, but social media companies are constantly inventing new ways to connect all aspects of my Internet life, all the while making it more difficult to keep them separated and retain a modicum of Internet anonymity. It seems that social media has created an Internet where not only my Mom can check up on me, but so can anybody who knows my name.

At last month's Facebook F8 conference, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced new products aimed at making the entire Web more social. For example, Facebook wants to put "Like" buttons on as many other pages as possible. Zuckerberg explains that the idea is to create a Web in which you can take it with you -- your social network that is. When a user "Likes" something on a site, Facebook will store that information, and will allow other sites to use this data to tailor a user's experience.

A problem that I see with this plan is that it removes nearly all the anonymity from nearly all Internet use. It also hands a lot of information over to corporations. Suddenly, every blog that I read, every item I window shop for, will be logged in Facebook's data collection. Realistically, if companies can use my "Like" history to tailor my Internet experience, then who's to say other people won't be able to access this information? I don't need everybody who knows my name to be able to track all of my Internet movements. Where are the safeguards?

I also beg issue with the concept of tailoring my Internet experience. Diversity is the spice of life, and if my entire Internet experience is completely custom made for my personal preferences, then there is an entire Internet world out there that I will miss out on. Just because I like turquoise wool sock yarn today does not mean I want all of my online yarn shopping to center around turquoise wool. (I realize this isn't the best example, but you get the gist.) If we are only ever shown Internet sites that a computer system thinks we will like, we miss an opportunity to encounter new things. Eventually, my entire Internet life would consist of yarn and iPhone apps.

As both my personal and professional Web presences grow, I am slowly accepting that social media has made it very difficult to retain much in the way of anonymity on the Web. To some degree, this is just fine. As more and more of our lives are spent online, allowing that presence to be the real me seems increasingly okay. But there is the 'me' that I choose to put out there on the Web, then there is the 'me' that it seems Facebook and other social media outlets are trying to force out into the online world. We warn our children to never give out personal information online, yet our companies are caching our personal information without us really being aware of it. For the most part, Internet anonymity has gone the way of the Commodore 64 -- nearly extinct, though occasionally seen in special collections.

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About

Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conduct...

28 comments
bjcmore
bjcmore

I find the "Like" feature helpful in Facebook just as when using Pandora. I don't want to hear styles of music I don't like anymore than I want to see web content I don't like. And, I like for my friends to know what I like and dislike; like it or not. It's great that I can check Facebook throughout the day and see updates from all the feeds, including TR, that I am interested in. Everything else can be searched for if I have the time. As a father of teenagers, a Scoutmaster to 50+ teenagers and a Director of IT I feel it's my responsibility to learn and teach how to use technology, including Social Media. Putting myself "out there" is the most self policing thing I could do. Everyone I know watches what the say and do because they know others, including kids, are watching. It comes down to choices and taking responsibility for yourself! I can be found on Facebook at "noway@bob.com".....

Ron K.
Ron K.

I haven't had anything bad happen. A couple/three spams but I can't directly attribute those to Facebook. I think there's is unwarranted hype about 'Like' until I see differently.

rsantuci
rsantuci

I don't believe in online anonymity - people hide behind it far too often. If you force them to own up to their own words, they may not be so hasty in what they post. And I agree with one of the comments - don't use the like button.

santeewelding
santeewelding like.author.displayName 1 Like

And, everybody else. We didn't climb to the top of the heap on account of being wimps. Lose sight of that -- as evidently many have -- and you consign yourself to the status of hanger-on, uncomprehending of your native power. You then lay accountability on any but yourself. Like G-Man says, take it into your own hands. That is, unless you are so far into unaccountability that you have forgotten how. Go to deserved hell if you have.

Ron K.
Ron K.

Facebook has account and privacy restrictions built-in. Share as much or as little as you'd like but don't whine if your 'privacy' is wide open and something negative happens because it wasn't attended to. I generally tell new Facebook members to lock everything down before they do anything else.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

While I agree that people who ignore the privacy settings have little to complain about, "opt-in" would be a very nice change for Facebook. Every time they've provided settings so far, it's defaulted to open requiring the user to go and lock it down. Even with Facebook's latest feature it's provided on by default; have FB open and visit a related website and you'll have the related websites plugin added to your profile as a silent install. Worse still, this particular "feature" provides no ability for users to disable it outside of not being logged in to FB when browsing any other website.

JamesRL
JamesRL

The assumption that you agree to any use that Facebook cares to make unless you explicitly find the option to turn it off. I agreed to the terms when I signed up, if they want to change those terms, they should inform me and give me the option to accept or not. James

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

As Nick pointed out, it is the "everything on by default, user must disable as desired" kind of opt-in by default on existing and new changes. When they added the privacy settings the first time, users had to manually go and harden there profiles. When they made user profiles search-able through Google's engine, they made everyone's profile publicly available requiring the user to, again, go and turn off unwanted voyeur settings. http://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/view/9305/facebook-under-fire-for-stealth-app-installs/ This is one of the articles on the stealth app installs that have now come to light. So yes, they are sneaking stuff into your profile. The gross lack of security related to FB plugins makes this significantly worse. I think they've eventually fixed it but one used to be able to easily display applets from other people's profiles; say, an applet for reading personal messages or email. Now we should also consider how all that data is stored in the back end, who has approved access and how easy it is to get access without approval. Where is that data stored and what country laws apply to it? The requirements for police/investigator/social-engineer to gain access to hosted information in the US are rather biased against the innocence of the individual. Mr. Steel's talk from HOPE 2009 is well worth a listen if you've not heard it before ( thelasthope.net/talks I think). What one must be very aware of with services like Facebook; we are not the customer. We, as profile posters, are the commodity being sold. The customer is the advertising and information pooling companies that pay FB.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

He's referring to the "Instant Personalization Pilot Program" under the Applications and Websites. When Facebook introduced it, the "Allow" box was checked. If you didn't want to participate, you had to manually opt out. I don't have a problem with putting my stuff on line; like you, I'm locked down pretty tight. My problem is with Facebook requiring the opt out rather than the opt in. It's sort of like MS, with its "allow by default" policies in earlier versions of Windows, not understanding why the users are complaining about OS security.

Ron K.
Ron K.

Are you saying that there are hidden applications or privacy settings on my application and privacy pages? I'd like to see a citation of that if you are saying that.

suthross
suthross

Australia is facing a internet security debate that will see the government implement a national firewall to block unclassified content from access. This trend to counter nasty, vile websites and other similar content disseminated in blogs is not some sinister plot to control the populace but is instead the reasonable reaction against those hiding behind anonymity to further a nefarious agenda. There should be no online anonymity. People should have the courage to stand for what they believe in and take responsibility of their public face warts and all as after all one is required to at least wear pants in public at the very least. The main backlash against facebook seems to be its too easy to data mine information of people with little or no desire to manage their public appearance and I will bet their appearance in real life is just a slovenly. So who needs it, If you cant say it openly then what merit does it truly have? Its time to grow up, be adult and stand by your convictions.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You're only considering cases of people taking responsibility for what they post. What about cases of whistle-blowers? What about those sites that require registration to download drivers? What about confidentiality of information when buying something online? There's more to online anonymity than accepting responsibility for posting in public forums.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

This reminded me of a recent article about managing one's own online image. Rather than being represented by the image that others may impose; make yourself an intentional online presence providing a positive representation. (lifehacker site had it I believe) Putting more information online makes me itch but there is a point worth considering in the above.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If anybody is basing their opinion of me based solely on third-party social networking comments, their opinion doesn't matter to me anyway.

sysop-dr
sysop-dr

There are many ways to be anonomous on the net but the most extreme is using bootable cds in a computer not your own in a place not your own. Say the linux bootable business card cd in a library. And then don't go to any of your normal sites like facebook or anywhere else you have to log in to except with an account that you only use from that bootable (and non-writable) cd.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

don't use the like button. You have a choice here, use it.

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

The trend I've noticed over the past few years, especially with the advent of Web 2.0 and social media, is that people react as if its use is mandated. It's not. "Well, what if I don't want people to find me?" is what I've heard around the office from co-workers, and then they tend to deflate when I say "So don't use it", as if that hadn't occurred to them.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I am not quite sure what people are so up in arms about in reference to Facebook. People talk about Facebook's lack of security. What is that facebook is supposed to be securing? If I recall correctly, the only information I out on my account is my name, address (I think), my email address and phone number. If I'm correct, all of that can be found pretty easily. If you are one of those that freaks out about your information being out there, don't create a facebook page. I think that the hype over this is getting crazy. I actually heard a list where someone listed a reason to use facebook because of the ethical behavior of Mark Zuckerberg.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

My teenage days dreaming I could write comics. Nothing ever came of the project except that name. It's finally achieved its moment in the sun. I release all rights to it; if someone else can bring it to greater glory, I applaud her. And a tip of the hat to SF author Harry Harrison, who's 'Stainless Steel Rat' riffs on his lady-love's first name. 'Angela', a nom de crime, becomes 'Angelady' and 'Angelegant' among others, before Our Hero learns her real name is Angelina.

Tink!
Tink!

could be a totally cool super hero!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

'Ariel Avengelica' I've been waiting literally decades for an excuse to use that name.

Tink!
Tink!

The ones who are really into the social sites for [b]socializing[/b] seem to think that everything is mandatory and they open up their lives to everyone. Smart users know to pick and choose what, when and where certain things about ourselves are given. We read terms, we read privacy policies (or at least skim over them) and make sure we're not going to release anything publicly that we don't want to. To really stay anonymous, there is such thing as creating alternate identities. Of course you need to provide truthful details in certain areas of registration, but as for the public, they don't need to know who you really are. In fact, does anyone here on TR (other than TR employees who send me stuff) know my real name? :p

Ron K.
Ron K.

I have my profile locked down to the point where I'm surprised anyone can see me. I only have friends that are friends, except for a few that snuck in there but they're cool too. Phone number? Uh uh. Only four people have my cell phone number. If I'm 'required' to give it out I lie.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

supplying 'true' personal information is a requirement at FB. I've gotten rid of any of that I may have had there since in light of some of the recent changes. Once again, user smarts is important.