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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...

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