Facebook teases anonymous app. What would that look like?

A recent report and tweet suggest that Facebook is working on an app that would allow users to remain anonymous.

James H. Collins/AP
A Facebook log is displayed on the screen of an iPad.

Facebook is working on an app that will give users the ability to post online under a pseudonym, according to a report from The New York Times.

Additionally, tweets from Josh Miller, a product manager at Facebook, strongly suggest that the company is developing an app or a platform that would give users the ability to post updates pseudonymously.

“You could stay anonymous to other users, but Facebook login on the back-end could track the jerks and keep them out,” says Josh Costine for TechCrunch, a technology news outlet. “Powered by its anti-thesis, Facebook could unlock the potential of anonymity to let people open up and be vulnerable.”

But if Facebook’s business depends on monetizing its users’ data, why would the company promote a new way for its audience to hand over less information?

“It will encourage use, and that’s what drives Facebook,” says Scott Strawn, an analyst at IDC, a global research firm. “If you have situations where you can have people engage, you’ll have more revenue.”

It has the potential to go further than a gossip mill — the platform could have political ramifications.

“It’s not a game-changer,” says Mr. Strawn. "It could be meaningful for a small population, especially for people who live in countries where speech might be limited."

The app could prove useful to areas under civil unrest, such as Hong Kong, where Firechat, a decentralized messaging app, has became popular.

The idea of an anonymous platform itself isn’t novel though. Apps such as Secret, Whisper, and Yik Yak have been filling in the anonymous social niche in different ways. Secret capitalizes on sharing anonymous updates within a group of friends. Whisper allows users to post images and text anonymously in their own network of friends. And Yik Yak leverages your geographical location to make a completely anonymous local bulletin board.

But a certain disjointedness characterizes all these services. The first two tap into Facebook, while Yik Yak lacks permanence. People move in and out; no friendships are retained. Having an in-house platform might be enough to entice new users and retain them.

Reynol Junco, a social media researcher and human computer interaction professor at Iowa State University, says that anonymity and pseudonymity create a productive background where less accountability helps boost creativity.

“When young people use a pseudonym they’re pretty likely to share pretty deep things they wouldn’t be able do in public. Openly sharing things without repercussion is really important,” Mr. Junco says.

This is a seemingly novel idea in a digital realm where anonymity and pseudonymity have fallen out of fashion within the past few years. Google did this when it merged Google+ and YouTube usernames, to much backlash. Recently, Facebook itself has gotten flak for its banning of drag artists for using their drag names.

Anonymous environments might even provide safer spaces that might help elevate minority personalities and identities and grant creative license that users wouldn’t be able to have while being judged by their peers.

While the idea is nice, Facebook might not be the right place for that. 

“Facebook doesn't have a good track record with this stuff. They constantly do things that make people wary of using their site,” Junco says. Facebook’s recent disclosure of its mood manipulation experiments marks one of many breaches of user trust.

And if you can’t trust a company to disclose how it’s affecting its content, can you truly trust it with your deepest secrets?

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