Ten years ago Mark Zuckerberg ushered in the era of social media with the creation of Facebook in his Harvard dorm, and fortunes have been made since coaxing people into sharing their personal information and thoughts online, often with "friends" they hardly know.
Now, it seems, comes the backlash.
Two new apps, Secret and Whisper, are capitalising on a trend to connect people anonymously to express opinions or ideas they might not share if their identities were revealed. Nowhere has the opportunity to dish the dirt anonymously been taken up with greater enthusiasm than in the heart of the tech industry, Silicon Valley, where the apps' online gossiping offers rare insight into a society shaped by opportunity – at one extreme, for talented entrepreneurs to make vast fortunes and, at the other, years of failure and frustration for tens of thousands of others. Postings that show up simply as "friend" or "friend of friend" reveal Silicon Valley not as a place of hard-working, peaceable tech engineers, but a hothouse of ambition, rivalry, jealousy and obsession.
David Byttow, a founder of Secret, recently described the app as a "masquerade ball" where "you know who is there and who is on the list, but no one can see faces", according to a report in the New York Times. Byttow and co-founder Chrys Bader-Wechseler believe people are more likely to hold honest conversations under a shroud of anonymity, so they decided to strip out the names and "put people into an environment with their friends to see what happens".
Last week an anonymous post on Secret triggered the resignation of Julie Ann Horvath, an engineer at the software coders' social site GitHub. She says a toxic workplace forced her out. In another incident, senior Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth was accused of being a power-hungry narcissist. He accused his detractors of jealousy. "This is just hurtful without being helpful. It's invective without accountability."
A spokeswoman for Secret says the company does not condone attacks against specific people. Tech critic and author Ryan Holiday says that while attribution is no guarantee of civilised discourse, Secret and Whisper represent a race to the bottom in terms of web content. "Because it's technology we think it's a net positive, but Secret and Whisper are serving darker parts of human nature and disguising it with techno-babble about truth and honesty. But does anyone need more unattributable gossip in their lives?"
Apparently, yes. Whisper – which shares gossip outside the users' immediate circle of friends – recently hired Neetzan Zimmerman from gossip site Gawker to be "editor in chief". Zimmerman drove traffic at the former site with what the Wall Street Journal described as "a deep connection to his audience's evolving, irreducibly human, primal sensibilities".
Both sites, Secret and Whisper, speak clearly to prevailing anxiety about the internet in general and social media in particular, says Professor John Clippinger of Massachusetts's Institute of Technology's Media Lab. He traces the desire for anonymity to fears over the loss of privacy to government data collection and, more acutely, to commercial sites such as Facebook and Google.
"We've gone from 'Privacy? Get over it' to people being very concerned about anonymity and how they share information. We're seeing a new parallel web developing in which people can express an opinion or post a picture and not have it traced."
But Clippinger agrees that the notion of pure anonymity is potentially insidious. What's needed are new methods of "authenticated anonymity" or "self-sovereign identity". He says: "People would be able to retain a certain amount of anonymity about their core identity but there are certain attributes that can be verified."
The drive behind this, of course, is pervasive worries over commercial data-collection and, increasingly, behaviour-predictive technologies. MIT's Media Lab believes we will ultimately want control over our profiles.
If Facebook used to be about the odd embarrassing photo, it's now about sensor data, medical data, search data – tons of information that's generated by you, then captured and monetised. "And none of it is in your control," Clippinger says.
He believes we are about to experience a dramatic loss of innocence. What exists in the government sector exists in the private sector, and we're only just beginning to become cognisant of it. Under these conditions, Clippinger says, sites like Whisper, Secret and the self-deleting messaging app Snapchat represent an effort to regain control of identity from big commercial sites that have begun to represent a surveillance state. "People who are knowledgeable about what's going on say we have to create a new internet architecture," he says. "This is the result."
To Clive Thompson, author of last year's Smarter Than You Think, anonymous sites are a reaction to the discomfort of trying to figure out what to post. "People have grown weary of the performance of the self in which everything you say is tied to your identity," he says. "Facebook has changed privacy policies so often, the things you thought were private no longer are. It's become algorithmically baffling and inscrutable."
But Thompson does not believe the quality of discourse is necessarily tied to anonymity. Several studies have shown it's more likely a response to the environment – civil or hostile – in which they are made. And in the sense that anonymity protects the community as a whole, the move back toward unattributable storytelling and commentary is one of several shifts in direction the web has taken on the issue.
"Anonymity is not necessarily a bad thing," says Thompson. "It's fascinating how people talk when they feel protected. They can tell candid stories or make confessions, and the response is often kind and thoughtful."
But have we learned anything we didn't know? "We already knew Silicon Valley was filled with unbridled venality and acquisitiveness, as most industries are, and Secret provides a way for people on the losing side to strike back a bit. The difference is, the tech industry makes bold statements about changing the world so it just seems more hypocritical."
Writing on the bathroom wall is not a bad analogy, he says. In a fairly circumscribed society, like school or Silicon Valley, the author is generally obvious. "When Party A insults Party B you usually know who it is because only Party A would have bothered."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014