When’s the last time you posted a bed-headed selfie on Facebook? Or a home-cooked meal gone horribly awry on Instagram? Probably never. These are the online spaces where we tend to put our best digital footprint forward.
But years of curating our online personas are now taking their toll. After all, no one is perfect, despite what your favorite celeb’s Twitter feed may lead you to believe. With digital storage quickly becoming limitless, consumers are growing tired of managing the massive amounts of digital data they are inundated with on a daily basis. More, individuals today are quite aware that the Internet never forgets. We want to discerningly control our digital lives just as we do our analog lives. We want to control what we share and whom we share it with, while understanding that the pervasive properties of digital may not leave us any choice. Today, a growing number of apps and programs designed to let you be you – in all of your unfiltered, unshaven, unmannered glory – are quickly attracting followers and skyrocketing pricing valuations.
For many of these new apps and services, which let you share personal thoughts and photos securely, privacy and anonymity are the currency. Snapchat was one of the early entrants, but the field is widening quickly. Self-destructing and encrypted message app Wickr, for example, raised $9 million in a Series A round of financing. Whisper, an app that lets you anonymously post messages and receive replies, raised another $30 million at an astounding $200 million valuation; Whisper has raised $54 million to-date. The latest anonymity app to make headlines is Secret, and app that lets users post updates under semi-anonymity. Within a week of its launch, Secret raised $8.6 million in new funding.
After a decade of over-sharing online, consumers are starting to appreciate the idea of communicating from a position of anonymity and ephemeralism and are seeking out secure and privacy-minded apps and services. Clearly defined privacy policies are becoming a badge of honor, so much so that companies are building and betting their entire existence on well-defined privacy policies. Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp, turned to the company’s blog to defend its acquisition by Facebook. “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible,” Koum wrote. “We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp.”
As more anonymity platforms flood the market – WUT, Social Number, YikYak, Shrtwv, Banter, Blink, Backchat, ask.fm – the battle is on to live up to the promise of security and privacy. And when these services show signs of going mainstream and becoming less secure, potentially more secure tools get big boosts. The market for anonymity is growing steadily, as consumers look for outlets for more personal expression in our pervasive digital environment. But these large increases in user numbers are really a thinly veiled move to control of our individual digital destinies.
Thanks to these apps, our digital existence is narrowing to more closely mimic social interactions in our real lives. If Facebook is a sprawling suburb filled with co-workers, second cousins and your kid’s soccer coach, then the anonymity app is the tiny city apartment you shared with four roommates in your 20s. These are the people who saw you shuffle around in your pajamas, knew your favorite bands and drank your milk. We feel comfortable sending these types of friends unflattering five-second snaps that we’d never use as our Facebook profile photo – they love us at our worst. But these new semi-secret communities are different. We’re entering an era in social media that also rewards disclosure and sincerity over perfection. The question is, will this lead to a more authentic Web – one in which we control the distribution of our posts and therefor no longer feel the need to fully censor ourselves?
Anonymity apps let us be ourselves with the people who matter most to us – especially those we don’t get to see every day – without the embarrassment of over-sharing. Our enthusiasm for these apps isn’t about wanting less accountability and more privacy. In many instances our motivation is just the opposite – we want to share more. (Some might say we want to share it all.) But, most importantly, we want to decide how, when and with whom we share.
Anonymity apps aren’t trying to circumvent accountability or shroud our identity. They’re simply trying to place greater control in our hands when it comes to managing our online identity.
Shawn DuBravac is the chief economist and senior director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association.