- Facebook has long pushed for people to use their real identity on its platforms.
- But digital anonymity has been part of the internet since it began — and users love having the option.
- For all the downsides of fake accounts, doing away with anonymity won’t solve the internet’s problems.
- Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer who publishes the weekly newsletter Kneeling Bus.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
During a congressional hearing in September, Senator Richard Blumenthal unintentionally became a meme when he asked Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, “Will you commit to ending finsta?”
Finsta, a slang term for a secondary, anonymous Instagram account that users create to reach smaller groups of users more privately, had come under congressional scrutiny for its supposed role in Facebook’s growth strategy. And despite the ridicule that followed Blumenthal’s poorly-worded question, his grasp of the concept was basically correct.
Although finsta accounts are an emergent phenomenon among users — rather than a feature Facebook actively promotes — their existence illuminates the nuances of the company’s relationship to users’ digital identities as well as its control over those identities. Anonymity is arguably the finsta’s essential quality: By linking multiple accounts to a single email address, Instagram users subvert the priorities dictated by the app itself, like maximizing followers and engagement that accrue to one’s personal brand. The goal, in other words, is to reclaim a measure of control over one’s digital presence by purposefully splitting it into multiple parts, some of which are anonymous.
Such anonymity is only outwardly facing, however. Facebook knows who a given user is even if other users don’t. The irony of Senator Blumenthal choosing “finsta” as his target is that Facebook itself has done more than perhaps any other company to make individuals’ online identities more rigid, by enforcing the notion of a singular digital self that maps directly to one’s offline existence. “You have one identity,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2010 interview. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
Facebook’s website also states this intention clearly: “Facebook is a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life … so that you always know who you’re connecting with.”
The ability to have a fluid online identity is in many ways an inherent quality of digital existence as originally conceived, but has become a hotly contested issue more recently as the drawbacks of anonymity become increasingly apparent. Since Facebook’s launch in 2004, it and other Web 2.0 companies have normalized the notion of having an online identity that matches one’s identity in “everyday life.”
Today, the internet finds itself at a fork in the road: While the de-anonymized, social media-driven Web 2.0 remains dominant, the nascent, blockchain-based Web3 offers to reintroduce some of the fluidity and anonymity that became less attainable in the Facebook era. Meanwhile, Facebook itself — recently renamed Meta — has outlined its own vision for the “metaverse,” which promises to further solidify the connection between our online and offline identities.
But we shouldn’t have to choose between these two approaches: Instead of simply embracing or rejecting anonymity altogether, Facebook and the other entities shaping the internet’s future might recognize the benefits of the fluid identities that the internet makes possible, while also finding more sophisticated ways to combat the negative consequences of anonymity. In doing so, they would have the opportunity to synthesize the best aspects of each vision.
Anonymity was a crucial part of the early internet
Before Web 2.0 and Web3, there was Web 1.0: the internet of the ’90s and early ’00s in which a relatively small subset of users generated most of the content. Anonymity and pseudonymity were somewhat inherent to the Web 1.0 user experience, because most users were not posting much at all, and those who did frequently used an alias. Outside of walled gardens like AOL, the building blocks of the early internet were personal websites and message boards where users could present themselves however they wanted. The web was a place to transcend the limitations of the physical world, rather than a direct representation of it.
When Facebook exploded in 2004, it changed this expectation dramatically, mapping online activity to offline reality. Users eagerly created profiles listing their interests alongside personal information like their birthday and relationship status. They “friended” their actual friends and soon began adding tagged photos, enabling Facebook to construct its social graph — a digital model of real-world social reality that would prove immensely profitable as a mechanism for targeted advertising. Instead of Web 1.0’s individual servers, users’ identities have come to live increasingly on big tech platforms’ relational databases, which have collected more and more information about them. While social networks like Facebook did give us useful new ways to express ourselves online, the flexibility and relative anonymity of Web 1.0 was equally valuable.
Potential for both harassment and free expression
As Facebook matured, it found itself at war with users’ efforts to escape their real-world identities, while in the past decade, the consequences of digital anonymity have become more visible. In 2012, Facebook’s share price plummeted after the company estimated that there were as many as 83 million fake accounts on the social network, a situation that had obvious negative implications for its ad sales.
Many attributed Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in 2016 to misinformation spread by Russian bots and sock puppets — alternative online identities “used for purposes of deception,” as Wikipedia defines them — on Facebook and other internet platforms. In a 2018 New Yorker piece about Russia’s role in the election, Jane Meyer cited the significance of “the countless messages, created by masked Russian social-media accounts, that were spread by algorithms, bots, and unwitting American users.”
More broadly, a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center found that anonymity “is often blamed as a key enabler of cruelty and abuse in discussions of online harassment.” At its most extreme, digital anonymity facilitates crime and violence, being the core feature of “dark web” networks that support a wide range of illicit transactions. These are all problems worth solving, but it’s less clear whether prohibiting anonymity will actually rectify them on its own.
While the drawbacks of anonymity are largely unambiguous and often extreme, the benefits are more subtle. The same Pew survey found that many respondents value the kind of anonymity that the internet makes possible: “On the positive side, 85% of Americans feel anonymity allows people to discuss sensitive topics freely, 77% think anonymity makes people feel more private and secure, and 59% say it is important to protecting freedom of speech.”
While positive outcomes rarely produce headlines as galvanizing as Russian misinformation or dark web crime, those benefits are arguably more widespread. For example, Facebook’s real-name policy has proven limited: Some users, including Native Americans, have been suspended for using their real names, while Facebook still allows plausible-sounding names that are actually fake.
Victims of real-world abuse and discrimination have complained that Facebook’s enforcement of real names effectively doxxes them, thereby placing them in danger offline. The internet also provides a crucial channel of political speech under repressive regimes, a function that requires anonymity. Saudi Arabia, for example, has imprisoned human rights activists for “internet crimes” and has sought to end Twitter users’ ability to be anonymous within the country. The emergence of finsta accounts themselves demonstrates users’ desire to free themselves of social media’s often-toxic usage norms.
Anonymity on the future internet
The current moment, then, is undeniably pivotal. Blockchain technology and Web3 promise to unshackle internet users from the platform-dominated internet where personal data and identity itself reside in databases owned by huge corporations. The potential for “trustless” interactions on the blockchain supposedly removes the need to know who exactly we’re dealing with, in monetary transactions or social interaction. But at the same time, Web3 promises an immutable blockchain ledger that records all digital activity for posterity, in full public view. Users themselves might remain anonymous, but their behavior could become more trackable than ever.
Facebook’s metaverse vision, on the other hand, simply continues the company’s effort to reproduce real-world identity and social connections in a virtual environment. We can try on different avatars in the metaverse, but Facebook will almost certainly ensure that we remain tethered to our singular offline identities. However valuable online anonymity may be, it is likely to remain somewhat elusive in Facebook’s metaverse.
Facebook’s interest in regulating our identities ostensibly arises from safety concerns: minimizing harassment and other harms that become possible when, to use Facebook’s language, you don’t “know who you’re connecting with.” But maybe that’s just what companies like Facebook want us to believe as they continue to compile proprietary data about us.
After all, despite Facebook’s ongoing struggle to firm up user identities, it seems just as toxic a place as ever, perhaps even more so.
Instead of forcing digital identities to match their offline counterparts, companies like Facebook should recognize the value of anonymity and the flexibility of identity that the internet makes possible. Not only does such fluidity have real benefits, but it’s inherent to the nature of the internet, and fighting it wholesale goes against the very grain of the medium. Facebook and other stewards of digital space might instead accept responsibility for the worlds they have designed and develop more innovative and nuanced solutions to the toxic problems that arise within them. Just because anonymity has drawbacks doesn’t necessarily mean it should be eliminated.