The High Price Of Anonymity

This past weekend the PostSecret iPhone app was shuttered due to abusive and malicious content being posted by anonymous users. This is a unique occurrence, since this is the first app being pulled for the actions of users as opposed to a lack of developmental interest.

PostSecret is a public art project started by Frank Warren in 2005. The premise of the project is that people decorate a postcard with a secret previously never revealed, mail it to Frank, and he posts 20 submissions to the site every Sunday. Frank’s growing collection has also lead to a number of PostSecret Books being published. Not surprisingly, there are a number of EMS themed secrets that can be found throughout both.

I had the opportunity to meet Frank Warren a number of years ago at a Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn where he gave a stirring presentation about the project. To say the place was jammed is an understatement, and is a testament to both the popularity of the project and the holistic healing participating can have on a person. Frank has said that closing the app “pains” him, and I have no reason to doubt that there is a physical manifestation of that.

This is, ultimately, the high price that must be paid for anonymity. As we continue to move forward with more and more networks requiring “authenticity” and “real” names, will anonymity disappear?

It is this very anonymous nature that powers PostSecret to begin with. To lose that would mean the project wouldn’t be as enticing… or honest.

What do you think about the price of anonymity? Is it a luxury or a necessity for an open/honest internet?


  1. says

    This is interesting post. I am all for anonymity for the content creator but have very mixed feelings about anonymity or handles for comment and critique. I am not familiar with the iPhone app and have only vague knowledge of PostSecret. I prefer to participate in online communities where real identities are used. At EMS1 they have changed to the Facebook comment system. I have been surprised at the tone of some comments and shocked that some people are willing to tie their name, image, and all sorts of other information to mean spirited comments. 

    • says

      I noticed the switch over at EMS1, and I honestly can’t help but wonder if people posting the comments on Facebook realize it’s getting exported out to the public site. I think if they knew that was happening as opposed to being only visible on Facebook, their tones may be different.

      However it has, without a doubt, increased the number of comments on the EMS1 site.

  2. says

    I think it can go either way. 
    Anonymity can be valuable either to make it possible to share things without violating anyone’s privacy, or things that would be dangerous or uncomfortable to share otherwise. It can also be important in some cases where there are people who would use someone’s comments in order to discriminate against them, or in other inappropriate ways. There is still a lot of “fear of the internet” out there in some communities and for someone to get into trouble simply for participating, rather than for doing anything wrong, isn’t fair.
    But when people hide behind it in order to say things they don’t want to be caught saying, that’s a different issue.It would be a lot simpler if people weren’t ever jerks. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
    As for your actual question, about whether it is necessary for an open/honest internet… I think it both helps and hinders, for the above reasons. It allows honest people to be honest, and it helps dishonest people be dishonest.

    • says

      It allows honest people to be honest, and it helps dishonest people be dishonest.

      I think this is very very very true. I’m a proponent of a person’s ability to remain anonymous. Without anonymity I think the world would be very different, and I often use Watergate’s Deep Throat as the example. Sure, it has nothing to do with the Internet, but I view it as an absolute great example.

      The problem with anonymity is that it does allow for trolling, which just distracts from the topic at hand. I think its important to be sure to evaluate the source before making a decision on a statement or information. Anonymous sources usually will not get the automatic trust of the public, but that’s not a reason to outright disregard them. It’s something that should be built over time. Unfortunately I don’t think many people understand that concept.

      And don’t feed the troll.

  3. Margaret Keavney says

    I support the use of pseudonymity – sort of a curated anonymity. As Hilinda said, anonymity allows honest people to be honest, and it helps dishonest people be dishonest. Without accountability, people can – and do – say anything without regard to the truth. This creates the kind of urban legends that change the way people do their jobs and live their lives sometimes.

    Anonymity when you are saying something like “I disagree with your philosphy of life” or “I agree, blue ambulances are more professional looking” doesn’t hurt anyone. But if you say “blue makes an ambulance less visable” without leaving your name so I can ask you for the study where you found that, your comment does not add to the conversation, but may lead some readers into making unwarranted changes.