Social Networking: Fighting to Remain Anonymous

In 2008, then-23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at South by Southwest Interactive, the annual Austin (Tex.) festival of geekery. The Facebook founder used his keynote interview to articulate his vision for the transformative power of social networking. By tying online identities to real-life ones, he suggested, Facebook would help create a safer, friendlier Internet.

At this year's festival, 22-year-old Christopher Poole took the stage as the keynote speaker on Sun., Mar. 13. Poole was there in part to promote his Web startup Canvas. But he's best known as the creator of the anti-Facebook: the message forum, where almost every user posts under the name "anonymous." In his address, Poole extolled namelessness. Zuckerberg is "totally wrong" about using real names on the Web, he told the audience: "Anonymity is authenticity."

Bloggers in the packed auditorium instantly posted his quips online, and the tech hordes debated them while sipping free beers under the Texan sun. Felicia Day, an actress and a keynote speaker at this year's event, took a break from promoting her latest online TV show to plead for anonymity. Without it, she said, "a lot of us are prevented from doing things because of failure and being shamed." The argument has ramifications for online businesses, too. Facebook is expected to take in $4 billion in revenue this year, according to research firm eMarketer, and part of its pitch to advertisers is that its pages are a clean, well-lit place where brands are safe from anonymous trolls.

Since the days of dial-ups and AOL (AOL), the Internet has been a place where it's easy to remain unidentified. Chat rooms, message boards, and registration forms are filled with meaningless monikers like "cool_guy123." Facebook, with its heft of nearly 600 million users, requires new members to sign up using their real names and has a security team of more than 150 to police its rules. Facebook has taken that mission beyond its own pages via a service for website owners called Facebook Connect. On sites that use Connect, which include the Internet radio station Pandora, the gossip blog Gawker, and 2.5 million others, new users don't need to create new passwords and login names. Instead, they sign up using their existing Facebook credentials.

Facebook went a step further in March when it started offering a free commenting tool to Web publishers. User comments on blog posts and news articles have always been clogged with inane or malicious remarks. With Facebook's new system, publishers can link commenters to their social network account and display their profile picture and real name alongside their posts. The aim is to weed out the vitriolic dialogue that anonymity fosters, says Andrew Bosworth, Facebook's director of engineering. "Your identity brings value to the comments," he says.

It can also bring value to the bottom line. Some comments include information that may help Facebook better target its ads. Partner sites benefit from more page views: The news site saw its referral traffic from Facebook more than double in the first day after it installed the commenting tool. At Sporting News, the tone of reader comments used to be "embarrassing at best," says President and Publisher Jeff Price. Since adopting Facebook Comments, quality has improved—and so has the site's perception among advertisers, says Price. More than 17,000 sites implemented Facebook Comments in the first two weeks of its release.

Poole is the clean-shaven face of the pro-anonymity movement thanks to 4chan, which he started in 2003 at age 15. Its message boards attract 12 million unique visitors per month and are filled with comments and images that range from mundane to provocative to obscene. It's often referred to as "the id of the Internet," a place that has given birth to some of the Web's best-known memes, including Lolcats, the popular series of cats speaking broken English. (To wit: "I Can Has Cheezburger?") It's also the wellspring of Anonymous, the hacker group that in December attacked the websites of MasterCard (MA) and other businesses that refused to process payments for WikiLeaks. (Poole says he has no affiliation with Anonymous.)

Anonymity online can spawn frivolities like Lolcats, but it's also important for dissidents, whistle-blowers, and patients who want to research their illnesses, says Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project. His group operates a network that helps people surf the Web undetected, and most of its users, he says, are "normal, boring people" who prize their anonymity. Poole says namelessness also frees people to take risks that lead to innovation: It's the difference between learning to ride a bike alone or in a crowded stadium. "You're probably more comfortable falling over in an empty parking lot."

Canvas is Poole's latest empty parking lot for Internet dwellers, and he's received $625,000 from venture capitalists including the Silicon Valley firm Andreessen Horowitz to develop the business. It's a snazzier version of 4chan, a place to "share and play with images," as its tagline suggests. Users upload pictures, then caption, edit, and share them with tools built into the site. As on 4chan, many users choose to be anonymous. It's also more of a business than 4chan, and Poole—who has a Facebook profile and says he's met and likes Mark Zuckerberg—has made some concessions. "We are using [Facebook Connect] to verify that people signing up are real people," he says. Then he clarifies: "But we are not surfacing your name or your profile information."

The bottom line: Anonymity online is at stake as Facebook grows. 4chan founder Christopher Poole is anonymity's top advocate.

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