Saturday, July 30, 2011

Having to De-annonymize

I have always trod with caution when it comes to social networking. My blog has presence all over - Facebook to Foursquare but personally I stay out of everything. My buddy C takes annonymization to extremes only alpha nerds can take things to. He does not have a rewards card for any store, he usually pays with cash and makes sure he does not follow any kind of "buying pattern". His goal in life is not allow himself to become a data point for retailers today and context brokers in the future.

I am curious about what Google+ is trying to do with the idea of Circles for non-intersecting areas of people's lives. A step in the right direction certainly but with their track record, with the whole Buzz episode I would be skeptical for a long time to come. Specially when their competition believes that de-annonymization is necessary and almost inevitable. 

Anonymity on the internet has been of particular significance to me. More than ten years ago, when I desperately needed help understanding what was going in my marriage and the chances of me being able to work through all that ailed it, having an anonymous email address saved my life. 
I did not have the courage to open up and share the deepest, darkest secrets of my life with anyone who knew me. I did not have the ability to get professional help without my putting myself in harm's way. More than anything else I was very afraid - I cloak of anonymity gave me the courage I sorely lacked.
I knew that not telling everything in the most painful detail would make it impossible for anyone to understand my situation or be able to help me out. Using my assumed name, I reached out a large cross section of people - psychiatrists, university professors, therapists, counselors and yes even the occasional psychic who promised to read the stars in my horoscope . 

It was a desperate cry for help and the response was quite overwhelming. A lot of people wrote me back with their insights into the situation, recommended what they thought would be the best course of action based on what information I had provided. A lot of them observed my message was brutally honest - exactly as I had wanted for it to be. 

Between the dozen or so responses I got from a wide cross section of people I had reached out to, I was able to see a the couple of distinct themes that helped my chart the course of the rest of my life. If I had not reached out anonymously, a lot of these wonderful people may not have been able to respond with the candor they did with. What is more, I would not have been able to muster the courage to present them with the unvarnished, unflattering and ugly truth. We had made a connection between one human heart and the other which made every other barrier fall way.

For many years, this blog has been where I was able to share what I thought, events in my life that I felt had potential to offer someone somewhere a little something of value. Over the years, many readers have reached out to me anonymously, shared secrets that would never have with someone they knew in real life, thanked me for writing something that touched them very deeply. In a sense, I used my blog as a way to give back what I was given in a time of great crisis. If I had to de-annonymize myself or required anyone who wrote to me to do so, it would break the very foundation on which this can all work. 

Randi Zuckerberg, demonstrates a staggeringly limited comprehension of the human condition when she makes her case of stripping anonymity online.“People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.” In every age, the media of social communication and interaction have lent themselves to a variety of abuse - it is no different now. Anonymity is not an invention or artifact of the internet or social media. To suggest stripping it online and "exposing" people is somehow for the greater good is disingenuous at best. 

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