Viral Videos, Internet Memes And The Value Of Online Anonymity

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How do ideas spread? Why do people come together online to make things go viral? The answer might surprise you.

At last year’s TED conference, I had the pleasure of seeing Christopher "moot" Poole (founder of the infamous and awesome 4Chan platform) discuss why people do things online (from getting ideas to spread to LOlCats). A large portion of his discussion focuses on the notion of anonymity (more on that here: The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity). In a world where every Marketer is looking to better understand who their consumer is because they are self-identifying themselves in spaces like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it’s important to think about what anonymity means online, and the sheer brute force of change and influence that comes from a very vocal minority, that looks a lot like a majority through the power of anonymity and mass collaboration.

In a Social Media world, where we focus on core values like openness, transparency and personal brand, what do you think about this…


  1. Is there really such a thing as anonymity on the Internet? Perhaps way back when it first started, nobody could really know who you were but based on his example of how they quickly found the guy abusing his cat, I think nobody is safe anymore.
    For a long time, I was part of a discussion board that was considered anonymous and part of the fun was to know that you could post whatever you wanted, and nobody really knew who you were.
    You’ve been online long enough, I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of ”anonymous” people posting silly thing and then having someone track them down and mail embarassing stuff to their boss or spouse…
    I would never count on anonimity on the Net, sadly.

  2. I think we’re looking at a different kind of anonymity – that of a well-recognised face.
    For example, Julian Assange (this post has just been flagged by the FBI. Hahahaha) is the visible face of the plethora of nameless individuals who make up Wikileaks. In fact, the way Wikileaks works is exactly the only way it’s ever going to be possible to be anonymous in future: have one person who’s willing to shield the rest. It’s a new form of patriotism, except we’re united behind a figure or a name who represents what we feel and isn’t afraid to say what we think. In return, we support that individual…as long as he can guarantee we’ll never be the ones up against the wall.
    In an era of persistent personal branding where anonymity is seen as cowardice or copping out, we’re making statements (through our comments/posts/Facebook picture uploads) that define us – and we need to be the ones ensuring that the definitions are correct. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve grasped the 3rd law of action/reaction in digital terms just yet.
    As an aside, it’s interesting to note that at least on the internet, the power of change comes not from numbers but from skills and common purpose.

  3. Anonymity is getting harder and harder. The ability to be anonymous is getting harder and harder. I think moot’s point (and it’s a valid one) is that we have to find a way to make sure that we do have a level of anonymity. Look at Wikileaks or Chat Roulette. There is a desire for a platform like this and the company that figures this out, may be on to one of the next/biggest online trends.

  4. The minute we check the weather on the TV, our every move is being tracked. From credit cards and phone calls, it’s amazing to see the level of monitoring that is going on in our lives… it’s not just the Internet.
    Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a way to be truly anonymous?
    The first level is exactly as you have described – where the individual protects it… how do we do this with technology? Who knows? Only time will tell, but someone will do it.

  5. You can always pose as someone else in Incognito mode, but I’m not sure if they’re as Incognito as they are made out to be!
    Also, if you look at 4chan, about 80% of the content there seems like what you would normally consider spam if it was e-mail or junk in a Quora-like forum. I agree that there is value being created in some cases, but those are so rare that the anonymity is far outweighed by the value created by social network.s

  6. Openness and anonymous will always have that spam-like feel to it… those who get value out of it know how to sift through the sludge to find the gold. And, like anything else, it’s usually buried deep in the bowels. One could say the same thing about Blogs, Twitter, YouTube, etc… you have to really search for the true value.

  7. I think every search we make, every data we enter Google is tracking us. And that is the cost you and me have to pay if we continue want to use it free!

  8. I think we are at a point in time today where anonymity on the Internet is viewed with suspicion, like drug deals dine in cash. A person wishing to remain anonymous is outside and against the system. We I’ve created our own 1984, but not from a totalitarian state, through our desire for freedom.
    What reams to be seen is how we treat those who can become anonymous on the Iternet as criminal or revolutionary!?

  9. Not sure. I think we’re getting to the point where in certain instances (think consumer reviews) it doesn’t matter. If you read a review that says Sarah H. from Chicago or anonymous but you know the system validated the individual as a “real user” why does a fake name matter more?

  10. Cost or price. The service is there to help individuals and the price of that help is Google (and other companies’) ability to see usage and analytics. The gold is in the data… no one ever debates that.

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