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Anonymity Is Not Privacy (You're Probably Getting That Wrong)

Apps like Whisper and Secret prize anonymity while commodifying a lack of privacy.

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Edward Snowden's NSA revelations will likely cost the US tech sector tens of billions of dollars. The same anxieties causing foreign clients to pull out of contracts with American tech companies, are also fueling a wave of venture capital investment in Silicon Valley into anonymity apps like Whisper and Secret. But whether or not they can deliver on either promise—profits and privacy—remains in question.

Whisper, released two years ago, has led the charge of anonymity apps that now include Secret, Rumr, Backchat, and Yik Yak, which is already ruining lives across middle schools everywhere. The precocious app has been wildly successful in growing its userbase—it has millions of users and billions of monthly pageviews—and in raising funds. “There is a real desire to be more authentic online,” Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia Capital, which led a $21 million investment into Whisper last fall, told Business Week. “Most people have more to say than just, ‘Here I am not the beach looking great.’”

Botha echoes the most common explanation for why these apps have been so popular: that they’re an alternative to Facebook and Instagram’s style of social networks, where people share their best selves, not their “real” selves. Anonymity changes what we share on our public profiles, the ones associated with our IRL names and identities, #obvi. But according to Professor John Clippinger of Massachussett’s Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, there’s more to the rise of anonymity apps than just a backlash against Facebook. He told the Guardian that these apps speak to anxieties about the internet and he traces the desire for anonymity back to fears of government data collection. "We've gone from 'Privacy? Get over it' to people being very concerned about anonymity and how they share information," he said.

In his read of our post-Snowden anxieties, Clippinger conflates privacy and anonymity. Apps like Whisper and Secret, however, prize anonymity while commodifying a lack of privacy. They are not as much a backlash against Instagram and Facebook as an extension of them. 

“Privacy and property are things that can be forgotten. Instagram, Facebook, and other social media applications are eroding people’s attachment to them,” Brian Driotcour suggested in his introduction to Dis Magazine’s privacy issue. Whisper and Secret quench our thirst for anonymity enhanced by post-Snowden anxieties while at the same time continuing a commodification of personal and private information.

And that’s not even getting into the faux-anonymity these kinds of apps provide. Forbes has explored the reasons to be wary of Whisper’s claims of anonymity. “Communication not only goes to Whisper but TigerText and their servers,” explains Robert Statica, a cryptography expert. “So forget about being anonymous. Whisper tracks you even more than the NSA does.” 

Whisper’s co-founder Michael Heyward doesn’t think users really mind. “The key thing here is it’s not so much about being anonymous to us,” he told Forbes. “What users care about is they’re anonymous to the community.” 

Perhaps corporate mass surveillance and data collection is so normalized, and the value of privacy so far gone, that we wouldn’t hope to expect to be truly anonymous. Of course, there are other options for people who want real privacy. But none are as large as Whisper or Secret, which suggests that for most users, actual safety from prying eyes and data crawlers is less of a priority than being able to dump their thoughts into the internet without anyone knowing about it. Essentially, it's not a question of privacy at all; users want a diary they can share with the public without worrying that they wrong person will happen across it.

Despite all the venture capital being invested into these anonymity apps—Whisper has raised more than $50 million and Secret nearly $10 million—some are skeptical that this trend will ever make money. Bill Gurley, a partner of Benchmark Capital who has invested in Uber and Snapchat, has been a vocal critic of Whisper and Secret, telling Business Insider that they are “false positives.” 

They may still stick around. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson speculated, “Chat Roulette was a fad. Facebook was a phase. These anonymous apps are more likely a phase than a fad.” If Wilson’s right, then we are looking forward at a phase of social media where a faux degree of anonymity will help distract us from a persistent erosion of the value of privacy.