Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
July 26, 2010 4:36 PM

The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity

With more and more people adding more and more personal stuff about themselves online, it's fascinating to think that the next big thing in the online world could well be anonymity.

While it's easy to take a contrarian view of Social Media, Digital Marketing and the trends that are currently underway (and this includes everything from Facebook passing 500 million users to the growing popularity of location-aware platforms like Foursquare), it's important to remember that a lot of what made the online world popular during its commercial inception was the ability to be anonymous. That anonymity was quickly followed by the ability to be someone/something completely different from who you were in your offline world. The intersection of this personality conflict came shining through when Second Life (the virtual world) began to gain in popularity a few years back. You would have individuals switching genders (some were even switching species) and in all of the flamboyance of island owning and virtual partying, what we really had was a place where individuals could lead a "second life" or, as some described it, "the life I was meant to lead."

With all of this personal information that we're publishing online, people still have a need/want to speak anonymously.

While online social networks and Social Media swells in popularity, and those who disclose and act "more human" benefit from these real interactions with real human beings, there is (what seems to be) a growing groundswell towards places that embrace those who do not wish to disclose who they are and what they're up to. Whether it's individuals looking to block their IP from Hulu (a trick anyone who doesn't live in the United States has mastered) to the news today that Wikileaks put out a swath of leaked U.S. government documents about their actions in Afghanistan. Let's not even get started with the avatars you will encounter by playing the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft.

There's something happening here and it's not just about deep throats or predators.

The knee-jerk reaction to anonymity is that the person creating the content has "something to hide." It's logical, but it's not the entire story. Some people simply feel more liberated to speak their mind knowing that who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion. Look at what is happening on Chatroulette and Formspring. While both offer the ability to fully disclose who you are (in reality), the main push of traffic comes from people wanting to connect in a more anonymous way. Yes, with this comes the two-percent-plus of people doing very bad things, but along with that also comes a different kind of culture and content production that you won't see on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Everything is "with" not "instead of." 

Does this mean that having The King from Burger King show-up on Chatroulette is the future of Digital Marketing? Probably not, but it is a smart play and may well be the right strategy to let those futzing around on Chatroulette know that if they get tired of watching very ugly people doing very strange things to themselves, that they could take a break and grab a Whopper. The point is that Marketing is becoming less and less of a zero sum game (or one campaign to rule them all). Based on the wild and explosive growth of these platforms that allow and engender anonymity (and the huge uptake in a brand's desire to play with transmedia storytelling), it could also be an indication that your current/future Digital Marketing strategy may be well served by also embracing the anonymous side of the Internet. As an entry point, imagine what consumer reviews may look like if you didn't force people to declare who they are?

What are your thoughts about the growth of the anonymous Web? Should we be scared or ready to embrace this growing trend?

By Mitch Joel