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September, 2009:

Are you really anonymous?

There’s an article entitled,  Social Security, in the July/August edition of MIT Tech Review. (I’m behind in my reading so just catching up, I plan on starting to read the next one on the train ride home). First off, misleading title. The article has nothing to do with the federal retirement program that will be insolvent and have no funds to pay me when I am 65, 67, 70 or 75. Now to the meat of my thoughts on the article.

The article discusses the concept of Anonymous social software and goes on regarding research that has found that using data mining techniques on your social network, one can be personally identified. Pretty interesting. But not surprising. So let’s go back to the concept: Anonymous Social Software. I am not sure I really “follow” the concept. (pun intended).

People who blog anonymously. This I can understand. You can write all on your own, not disclose it is you to anyone and take active steps to not get identified. A great example is Fake Steve Jobs who had quite a run writing a blog without being personally identified. However, without fostering a commenting dialog, I can posit that blogging is not social software, it is simply a publishing platform. Once you begin an interaction (a conversation) do you really enter the realm of social software.

So, can people really be anonymous and use social software. People who want to remain anonymous take strides to not release any more information than they have to not give themselves away. In most cases, this is precisely the opposite of what one tries to accomplish with social software. The point is to interact, to follow. And of course every connection in of itself is additional information that narrows the focus on who you could be. Back on the Fake Steve Jobs, even Daniel Lyons couldn’t not remain anonymous. His writing style alone eventually gave him away.

Another subtle point is the article discussed security and anonymity as if they are one in the same thing. However, security and anonymity are not the same thing nor should they be. Whether identified or not, people want their system and data secure. I am not anonymous writing this article but I want the article to be secure. The same goes for my newsfeed on Facebook or my stream on Twitter. If you want security, use the web privately, private rooms, storage, feeds, etc. Yes, there is the raging “security of cloud computing” conversation going on but that is fully another topic and one which I believe will resolve itself.

The big question people should be asking themselves is why are they trying to remain anonymous? This issue has existed since the days of mainstream message boards and chat rooms. You are going on the web and posting information fully out in the public. A “handle” isn’t security. CEOs of publicly traded grocery store chains even know this.

My view is if you are venturing out and going to interact on the web, you have to have a comfort of living in public. Fred Wilson had a great commentary on this. It is something that everyone posting information should consider. It is much more about your own personal attitude and approach than whether the software/meme should be maintaining your anonymity. Sure many will disagree with me. I’m just not sold that you can have one without the other.

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