Is it time for an anonymity movement to challenge Facebook?

I‘m delighted to feature today a guest post from Gregory Pouy, one of France’s top marketing bloggers. This is his first post on an English-speaking blog and I’m pleased to bring his views to the {grow} community:

I’m a social media guy.  I’ve been blogging for six years and have been on Facebook since its beginning in France.  I’m very familiar with how Facebook has evolved. So, I guess you could say I “get it,” but to be honest, even to somebody like me, Facebook has become too complicated, and even frightening.

I’ve found myself thinking that even the most die-hard users must also find Facebook’s changes — while esthetically appealing — incredibly confusing.

Following your Facebook feed can become a part-time job! You can spend a whole night plowing through your recent timeline updates, hiding what you don’t want to see, configuring all of your privacy settings, reconfiguring who has access to each and every photos album … it is starting to feel like you are becoming your own website administrator.

When you realize that Facebook can remove all of the filters that you had previously defined and dig up old photos albums that you had deleted from your profile, you quickly realize how much trust you’ve put into this machine — and there is nothing you can do about it but stop using it.

For me, the changes with Facebook have made make me shudder, especially when I start thinking through some of the implications of the new direction they are taking.

Facebook ubiquity

Facebook’s announcements last week imply that EVERYTHING we do, say, listen to, eat, work on, play on … every detail of our lives .. will be shared, stored, and then dissected at the discretion of the Facebook algorithms.  You might be thinking : “Wake up! There is nothing new, you’ve got to accept that anything online can be made public at any moment — even an e-mail.”

But having the ambition to display the whole life of their users is just insane.  Take Spotify, for example!  Sharing the music you’re listening to seems great, right?  Just put yourself in the shoes of a shy 16-year-old guy; what is he going to do to impress others and fit in?   He’s going to listen to the same music that everyone else is listening to, so as not to seem “weird” at all via his very public Facebook profile.

Imagine that he may stop listening to what he really likes because he will be ashamed to share his real taste in music, unless he is one of the rare users that figures out how to stop the feed from Spotify to Facebook.

Now take this concept and duplicate it for tastes in TV, movies, places to eat … maybe with just about everything.

There’s a significant difference in saying “I’m fan of” something to look cool versus having a machine checking everything that you actually do in real time. Big Brother? We’ve been talking about him for years and it seems like he truly is here.

Facebook is on track to homogenize society, which conversely, and ironically, may “weaken” the database that Facebook is building and the advertising targeting that they are offering!

We are boiling ourselves

Did you ever hear the story about the frog? If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out right away; the frog doesn’t want to die. If you put a frog in a pot of colder water, though, and slowly heat the water, the frog will stay until it dies (There are actual examples of this on YouTube if you really want to see that this is true).

We are frogs being boiled by Facebook. If Facebook had had the same privacy settings when it first started, people wouldn’t have joined or wouldn’t have joined for the same reasons. Now that they have, they stay and just let Facebook keep doing as it will.

We all have heard so many people say: “I’m going to delete my profile”, “Facebook is evil”, but yet they still seem to be on Facebook…

With the arrival of Timeline though, maybe this is a tipping point.  My friend Loic recently explained on his blog how his 16-year-old son decided to delete everything from his profile because he was afraid of sharing his life details, especially when people can go back to the very first things he did or put on Facebook.

Loic’s son is not alone; I’ve already heard the same story from multiple other people and friends that are deleting everything or something, clearly a sign of intrusiveness gone too far…

Perhaps the answer to this dilemma is in China.

Facebook is prominent most places in the world EXCEPT for China (and Russia). Part of this is because of China’s censorship and national protectionism, but it is also because Chinese social networks are very different.  When I was in China to understand how and which social media networks work there, I quickly discovered that their huge success is mainly due to one thing : anonymity!

When thinking about the future of social networks, it is impossible not to think about China and the way its social networks could change how we interact …

If Facebook could move to other countries, could Chinese social media platforms, with their elegant emphasis on anonymity, come into the Western World?

I think that we could see a backlash and a strong return to anonymity on the web because people love sharing their real lives, real stories, real fun, real everything without wondering about personal branding, or — wondering who is watching.

Any way, I can’t help but admire how much simpler and liberating our online experience would be — especially for youth — if we had a simple social networking platform that allowed anonymity.

What do you think? Is the trade-offs worth it?  Or, will you happily continue to feed information into the machine?

Gregory Pouy is a marketing professional who blogs at Greg from Paris. He also has created a very useful eBook on The Future of Commerce.  Follow him on Twitter at @gregfromparis.

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  • Here Here!!!!!! Whether we like it or not, I do believe this is the future. The users must own Social Media or there will cease to be social media.  As I’m sure many in my generation can attest to, I sure wouldn’t want my current circle of friends, business networks or most others for that matter know (or be focused on) what I did (in detail) when I was younger!!!!! Not that I’m by any means ashamed of who/what I was/did then, but it’s certainly not who/what I am now.

  • Gregory Pouy

    @twitter-15056439:disqus  I’m really happy to read that you are thinking the same  – there is a problem and it will be resolve by a way or another…

  • Thanks Gregory.  Perhaps what Facebook is missing is the fact that people want to control how they are perceived. Whether they realize it or not, they want to create a certain impression, which means choosing what to share and what not. As I understand it, you have control over whether the apps publish or not, but it’s not a very fine degree of control. Hopefully they’ll rectify this…

  • Gregory Pouy

    @twitter-29827578:disqus yeah you’re right and Forrester just published a study on this specific subject.
    At the same time I believe people would love to share their very personal stuff but without wondering if it’s good or not for their personal branding because their actual name is attached to the content.

  • You make some really good points that are worth considering – I’m not opposed to anonymity online. However, I think it’s important to remember that all Facebook is doing is redesigning the way content – that *we* have already willingly shared – is being laid out. Yes, there is some concern that past foibles will be brought back to light, but perhaps there’s a case to be made for being more cautious in what we say and do online. The permissions I’ve set for who gets to see what isn’t changing, but it’s now easier to see things from my past. It’s easier for people viewing my timeline to see what I’ve done from birth to present, but that doesn’t mean I have to go through and spend hours upon hours filling in all the blanks of my life on Facebook. I don’t intend to do that either.

    I blogged about this yesterday, in fact – I believe protection of my personal information and my privacy is solely my responsibility. I’m using a service that is free of charge – Facebook – to connect with friends, family and associates. It isn’t up to Facebook to save me from embarrassment. That is my job and my job alone. I do have control over how I am perceived in the choices that I make on what to post anywhere I am online, including Facebook.

  • Hi Karen, these are very solid points for everyone to consider.  I did take the time to read your blog and clearly understand your message.  And, for those of us who actually understand the ramifications and these technologies, you are correct.  But, this is a very, very small minority of internet users.  By far, the vast majority has no clue about any of this. They don’t understand the technology, the concept of content use / distribution nor the ramifications. Nor do they understand that at any point, sites like Facebook can change the privacy settings (as they’ve done in the past) and everything you thought was private was just sucked out into the public across thousands of uncontrollable servers/applications all over the planet (well before you can change it back).
    Be that as it may, the point Gregory (and others) is trying making is that as users become more aware that “nothing is free” and that they are being somewhat “conditioned” to expose themselves through these “free” technologies (as they are the product), many may choose to be anonomous and seek other venues for sharing personal details. And, as the analysts are now seeing, it’s already started.

  • An interesting point. Anonymizing a presence on Facebook would seemingly defeat the purpose of sharing one’s life….it might be easy enough to be RockySquirrel54321 but still be recognizable, especially if you post pictures. With recruiters Googling candidates, and a whole company digging up everything you’ve ever posted and marking you as employable or not, all online public speech may have to be completely anonymous….even then the fine folks at the Social Intelligence Co. can supposedly find that politically incorrect forum post by attaching your e-mail address to it. 

  • Quick heads up on Spotify…go to “File” and check “Private Listening” if you don’t want your Macarena marathon to go out on Facebook. You have to check it again with every login.

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  • Gregory Pouy

    I’m not agree, they offer people to share much more AND allow people to go through your every step into Facebook even the very beginning.
    I agree people should be conscious of what they are doing online but what’s about this party you want to talk about but not in your name because then it could be problematic for your personal branding – same with some random guy meet anywhere…well you’ve got my point.
    I understand that you will not fill every single detail of your profile but I think it nsane just to offer the people the ability to do so.
    I agree it’s not Facebook fault, but they want you to share a maximum so they can sell it to brands. But you can’t ask people to be as aware as you on their personal information.
    I think they might just stop sharing into Fb and go somewhere else.

  • Gregory Pouy

    I know how to stop the Spotify  thing but I’m not sure everyone will find it.
    Furthermore, I don’t think people might search for anominity on Fb but somewhere else probably…

  • I fully understand where Gregory is coming from. I think these are valid concerns that will essentially take care of themselves through people’s choices about what they participate in with social media. If there is an increasing move to anonymity (and I’m not fully convinced yet that it’s a very large movement yet), that does kind of indicate that at least some people are more aware of this issue.

    To Gregory’s point – any social network out there can offer up the ability to fill in whatever they want. That doesn’t mean people will or should fill them in. That’s where education and awareness programs have to come in to teach people the ramification – hopefully, before they learn the hard way.

    I don’t think we have a choice about learning about the ramifications of social media networks. It’s here to stay. To decide to stay offline is a legitimate stance and not everyone needs to participate. BUT, if someone is participating, they must at some point learn to do so responsibly. If, for some, that means they want to stick to anonymous online activity, well…then that’s what they should do, but Facebook was never designed to be anonymous. It never will be conducive to anonymity. If that’s what someone wants, they *should* go elsewhere.

  • Anonymity is no barrier to sharing or liking content. And while for some it means they feel they can be abusive with impunity, for most it means more honesty and access to desired information or communities without fear. And that can’t be overstressed.

    The internet is built on the idea of anonymity and anyone who fights against it—even Google and Facebook—will fail. Not in any huge or even noticeable way, but they will fail to be “the place” where things of import and meaning happen. They will be left out of the important conversations that really matter to people.

    For all it’s ubuiquity, 99% of what you see on Facebook is garbage content. Google+ hasn’t even taken off yet (and may not–we’ll see).

    But go to a site where users can be anonymous and you’ll see—paradoxically—real community, real bonding, real conversations about things that matter to people which they might not want to publicly reveal. The reasons for not revealing their identities are irrelevant. It could be for personal safety. It could be for fear of being shunned. Doesn’t matter, because none of us have set up as judges on this earth. Nobody cares what you think of someone else’s morals or tastes.

    I prefer a world where people can truly be themselves. If they can’t do that on Facebook or Google+, who’s loss is that?

  • I agree, and I base my agreement on personal experience. I share many things on Twitter that I won’t share on Facebook. My Twitter followers respect me without exception, even if they disagree with me (if they don’t respect me, I haven’t heard about it). But on Facebook, the negative backlash I’ve received from being honest has made me shut down. Everyone knows me there. They seem to think this gives them license to attack with impunity. :-/

  • Gregory Pouy

    Your experience is really interesting though ! I fully understand what you mean, the relationships on both social networks are not the same and I think you clearly demonstrate that with your own experience

  • Gregory Pouy

    Totally agree even if I believe people love to show off and this is the place for Facebook or Google+

  • Sergio

    I don’t agree with most of your points,

    1. Who is going to browse my Timeline? FBI?

    People really think there is time for that? Or that someone cares? Well they don’t. We are not that interesting. This is like ecommerce back in 1999, and the fear of credit cards and private info. look at it now. amazon and others have everything and no one cares.

    People rarely go out of their wall for any reason. Brands also think that people go to their profiles on a regular bases. They don’t.

    2. Being normal and all the same

    Young people, old people all of us are “weird”. We don’t want to be the same. We want to belong and be loved. It’s ego and it’s human. We want our tribe or tribes not everyone. There is no shame on sharing. Because it’s the “real” you. Normal is boring.

    3. Our info is relevant for advertisers

    But in a way of giving you what is relevant. We are more demanding then ever and our attention spam is reduced to the minimum. What is not relevant or annoying is out of the timeline.

    It’s your preferences and what you do that matters. Not your childhood pictures.

    There was the possibility to see who unfriend you and Facebook was quick to fix it. Facebook is a mutant and what it’s future rely on the capacity to change, adapt and anticipate user needs.

    They did an amazing job so far.

    4. Fear

    If you have fear don’t use it. Buy a dog. Fear is the root of all evil. but be aware that all your info is there on google, msn, yahoo, amazon and the likes. It’s an illusion to think someone is safe. On or offline.

  • I am one of those people who value anonymity.  But this doesn’t prevent me from having social networking accounts.  It may be a naive assumption on my part, but my personal solution to all this is to keep private information that I don’t want to share well, private.  I don’t post what I don’t want anyone to find.   

  • Very interesting view.  FB’s business model depends on unlocking your privacy and exploiting it to advertisers.  By dissecting every word of content you share, they are creating a detailed profile to the extent that they may know more about you than your closest friends.  And then they will sell this information.  That’s what you signed up for. Most people are uncomfortable with that but its nice to hear from somebody who is not.  Thanks for the dissenting view.

  • I wish I could cast a dissenting view here, it would be more interesting. But I’m totally feeling Greg’s angst here. I’ve been on Facebook since 2007 and as someone very actively involved in social media, I loved the way it brings people together. I’m also very keen on authenticity. So anonymity for me is a no go for a social media platform. While I understand the need for it in China & other “not so sharing” cultures, the point is to share parts of yourself, not just facts about yourself.

    With the recent changes, I see friends around me go ga-ga over the new timeline and look of FB. We are given more options (overwhelming to most) and a more attractive platform so Facebook can sell more personal information.
    Looking at the new timeline page, I feel like little Hansel standing in front of the Gingerbread house watching Gretel walking towards the door. It looks yummy and I want to go in with her, but something tells me those jelly donut doorknobs are going to cost me plenty. 

  • Gregory Pouy

    This is a good solution, however, I believe people want to share some stuff that are right in the middle…and no solution to share them without wondering on their Personal Branding

  • Greg,

    You’ve articulated the “pink elephant” in the room (American expression) around social networks. The conversation you are touching on has just begin in the US in terms ways to potentially look differently at this problem. The term being used to deal with expressing yourself on social networks without repercussion is called “Psedunomity”. I’d like to draw the attention of you and Grow readers to three things:

    1. Have a read of top blogger and venture capitalist Mark Suster’s recent post on this emerging topic:

    It’s an interesting discussion on where this topic may be heading.

    2. Note the launch of the first real “Anonymous” social network founded by serial entrepeneur Dmitry Shapiro. It launched last month.

    3. While this points to a want/need to revert to more control over our social lives (an especially acute issue in Europe due to historic privacy concerns that you are somewhat expressing in this post), there is a growing backlash in both social and employment terms globally around how much control a social network participant has over their digital footprint and life. So I’ll point you to this interesting video of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman recently telling an audience at the annual Davos conference that “privacy is for old people” (paraphrasing).

    And so perhaps this leads to what I find the most interesting point in that technology powerhouse Google has taken a significant step towards bridging the issue of full and open disclosure of how you are and what you do without necessarily understanding the ramifications of that (this would be the Facebook model) and a completely anonymous social network where you can freely express yourself but no one really knows who you are (ala Anybeat). Google+ seems to fill this void and it will be interesting to see if this technological model can usurp the unprecedented market power we see in Facebook.

    Thanks for the post, Greg – good thinking here and a good way to debut yourself in the US.


  • Gregory Pouy

    Hey Sergio,

    Thank you very much for your comment and excuse my late reply.
    I’ve got your points and I was used to answer the exact same thing in fact.
    I’m a marketer so I fully get what Facebook is doing and the “FBI” thing is what I answer to people asking me if I’m not too afraid of sharing so much online.

    I think people need to be love by as many as possible and need some personal branding place – that’s what Facebook is offering.
    Then it’s not only about advertisers on Facebook but also about recruiters, colleagues, school friends, people we date, one night stand…I’m not even talking about potential Thief or industrial espionage (which happens on these networks).

    People want to share some personal stuff too like being drunk at a party and all that stuff. You can’t really do that anymore when it’s attached to your name.

  • Gregory Pouy

    Hey Ray, I’m not afraid of anything, I’m just trying to figure out how SM could evolve.
    I also love the fact that Facebook bring people together and I’ve got nothing against Fb – I love the service somehow.
    I’m just thinking this is going far, people start to realize and might move part of their use to somewhere else.
    It is slightly different to what you make me say…

  • Why would you want to be anonymous if you want to share.., how would anybody know who they’re sharing what with? Besides, people who want to Cloak and Dagger always find a way and will never use Facebook…
    And.., as long as people are willing to give up their liberty for freedom there will be people who don’t think about what they post and how they share and people who take advantage of that. That’s good, they can provide the entertainment…
    The rest of just need to be conscious and wide awake.., now more than ever. About the weird teenagers out there.., I wish I had a platform like Facebook, or any other when I grew up, it might have given me a chance to really express myself.

  • the moment you sign up for this your privacy belongs to THE WORLD…. you shoulda known better

  • Maybe the challenge is called Google+ ? 

    Maybe we are afraid of challenging facebook?

  • Angst may be a wrong choice of words. What I meant to say is that I understand your concern. (not fear ;- )  Facebook is one of the reasons I made Social Media my profession. I understood through it how it could connect people, re-establish relationships etc.. But its strength: relationship building, connections and interaction work only if this engagement is built on trust. To trust someone, you have to know who they are. So I don’t think anonymity is an option. This is one of the reasons I like the Google+ platform. I feel I know who I communicating with.

  • My comment when G+ was announced was “Facebook just got slapped in the face and Google said “Compete!”  We need G+

  • What a helpful comment Marc. Thanks! 

  • Excellent Article!

  • Sergio

    Most people are? So we will see them quitting everyday? I’m still waiting to see my mother on Google+. 🙂

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  • Gregory Pouy


  • Gregory Pouy

    They seems not doing so well.
    I invite you to watch this Ted Speech on China :

  • Gregory Pouy

    When I mean Anonymity, I mean not connected to your actual real name.
    You can have a avatar and gie it to real friend but HR can’t find it looking into google for example.

  • Gregory Pouy

    WHaouh, thanks very much for this comment.

    I will go and read all those !
    I invite you to look at this TED speech on the China economy coming too :

  • Gregory Pouy

    My answer to that is  : do you trust Facebook ?
    And do you think it is sane and safe to give all your personal information attached to your name to a private company ?
    I don’t know if facebook can be trust as they are changing their rules all the time…
    I think people will start thinking about that…

  • Gregory Pouy

    Karen, just to invite you to look at this :

  • The issue of trust is one of the reasons I have moved much of my online presence to Google+. I’m not naive enough to believe that my personal information is any less exploited for revenue, but I do believe I have more control over it. 

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  • While I do share some of the privacy concerns, I am not sure about things like Spotify forcing further conformity on everyone in terms of their tastes. Maybe my perspective is off because I’m not a teen, but isn’t it possible for the 16 year-old you used as an example to go the other way — to let his individual tastes proudly be known? Say he found out one of his “cool” Facebook friends who follows the same metal/hardcore/punk band as he does also “likes” Johnny Cash or even Dean Martin… Suddenly, the 16-year-old may feel empowered to admit he listens to vintage David Bowie and sometimes even Patsy Cline.

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  • I really think the anonymity necessary because there is always somebody who likes to keep a low profile like china…

  • Great article Gregory. I was somewhat embarrassed to see myself, a 42 yr old man, in your description of that shy 16 yr old boy. I have often found myself checking my Facebook timeline to see if it contained a notice of some song I listened to on Spotify or some comment of personal disclosure I posted on a community board for people with bipolar disorder. I am by no means hyper-vigilant about keeping private my occasional desire to listen to Beyonce or Cat Stevens. Or overly fearful of any stigmatizing that could result from people I work with discovering, from an article of mine online, that I struggle with Bipolar disorder (if they know me even a little bit, they’ve probably already figured that out:).

    Although Facebook threatens, in their TOS, to suspend accounts which contain false info, it hasn’t deterred me from fictionalizing a few bits of info I consider personal and private. And I have never posted comments like, ” Just polished off a whole bottle of Vodka and sent my regular Tuesday night hooker home in a cab. Time for bed.” I continue to ignore the suggestion that I accept Foursquare’s invitation to log and publicize my every move. ” Derick Grover just arrived at the Adult Bookstore and Theater on Depot Ave.” These are just fabricated examples, of course:) But there are somethings my Mother doesn’t need to know and, personally, it’s nobody’s damn business what I ate for lunch or how long I may have had a severe bout of flatulence.

    We all, to some degree, wear various masks, create certain personas in the social arena of our physical world. Does Facebook honestly think it has the right to demand we be entirely and honestly our true selves in their virtual one? And do they really think they can successfully police such a demand? Let’s all become not one, but numerous different personas in our online communities. Sometimes it’s necessary to create a little public fiction in order to protect our private facts..and parts.

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