Is Anonymity More Interesting?

Photo by Julie McLeod from Flickr used under Creative Commons

If you read here, you’ll know I’m generally against online anonymity.

Sure, it has its uses, but the rise of Web 2.0 has proven that being yourself on the intertubes isn’t bad, although it can be dangerous. But that’s a different post for a different time.

When you’re anonymous, it’s much easier to be a jerk because the repercussions don’t fall on you. You can troll around being snarky and mean with no consequences.

When people know who you are, you don’t have the same liberty. This is a good thing.

However, the lack of anonymity creates a sanitized experience where people tiptoe around, characterized most obviously on Facebook.

I’m not the only one who has noticed. Last week’s South Park lampooned people’s behaviors on Facebook, and The Oatmeal’s “How to Suck at Facebook” has been floating around for a while.

This is a tough post to write because my goal is not to criticize, but rather to point out how behaviors have changed with the loss of anonymity.

Facebook isn’t the only place this happens. It’s been happening in blog comments and forums forever.

I’ve tried to reengage with my Facebook network, but increasingly, I feel like an outsider because I have nothing to say. When I do comment, I get sucked into polite games of “you hang up first”. I need a rule of thumb for when it’s acceptable to stop commenting on a Facebook post.

This has a lot to do with how frictionless Facebook is. It’s so easy to post and comment that I feel rude when I don’t. This is why LOL is the most commonly used word on Facebook. I made that up, but it sure seems to be.

Contrast this to Twitter, which retains some anonymity, and whose 140 character limit enforces brevity.

I’m much more interactive with my Twitter network, and I find it enormously more interesting, especially since I started following more.


First, I don’t feel obligated to read Twitter. I can browse, read or ignore, and search and hashtags allow me to keep up with topics I find interesting.

Second, because I don’t know everyone I follow on Twitter IRL, I don’t feel like a jerk when I don’t reply or don’t read their tweet streams in minute detail.

Finally, because of the above and the 140 character limit, I’m fine with short replies and fine when people don’t reply to me.

The differences between Facebook and Twitter networks have everything to with the differences between the friend and follow models.

The friend model requires acceptance, which makes it more socially loaded, i.e. it’s not trivial to de-friend someone on Facebook. Because of the social weight, Facebook networks are full of strong ties, and even though you could branch out into friends of friends territory, your existing network might not approve.

The follow model is frictionless, allowing you to build a network quickly and test follow accounts with very little commitment. Twitter also exposes followers/following for each account, which provides a nice way to Discover your weak ties.

The composition of your network is directly responsible for how much new information you can discover.

I suppose my preference could be due to effort as well. I simply don’t have time to be the kind of Facebook friend who meticulously comments on everyone’s posts. Twitter allows me to have single-serving friends and control the amount of time I spend.

So maybe it’s me.

Interestingly, this is the second time I’ve found a use case for anonymity.

What about you? Facebook or Twitter and why? Or do you use both the same way?

Find the comments. I’m interested to hear what you’ve noticed.




  1. Granted that a lot of this IS personal, but it sounds like you've identified at least two factors: the friend vs follow model, and the IRL vs online-only method of acquaintance. Of the two, I suspect that the IRL factor is the more important of the two.

    It's important to note that there are gradations of IRL. You and I have met a few times, but obviously this is different from how you would relate to your Aunt Margaret that you saw every Christmas as a child. If you ignore me, no great harm done, but if you ignore Aunt Margaret, then perhaps Mom gives you a call and asks why you didn't respond to Aunt Margaret's LOLcats video.

  2. For me, I'm not sure the question is about anonymity, per se. For my Twitter stream, I actually identify who I am, and a link to my profile to learn more about me should someone wish. I do totally agree that Twitter is a much looser model than Facebook. Depending upon how well you might know someone there, though, it can come with social repercussions if someone unfollows. In fact, some have written tools to track and notify those who request it that they have been unfollowed.

    I actually operate two streams. One public, one private. In the private one, where I do know every single person there, people do seem to be more aware of who comments on who's tweets and how often. Others have used unfollowing or even blocking as tools for retribution. I prefer to keep my online experience as low drama as possible, and am happy to be disentangled from such shenanigans.

    By comparison, my public stream is much more fluid. I follow and unfollow more freely and really don't care at all who follows or unfollows me. As you point out, it's all a matter of controlling the information flow. About the only reason I pay any attention at all to my public follower list is to weed out obvious spammers.

    Facebook, to me, seems a combination of these two. The friend list itself operates much like my private twitter stream. But although I did dip my toe briefly into the FB gaming scene, I quickly withdrew… blocking the game, and insisting that my friends list only include people I actually know or at least have met and conversed with (again, like my private twitter stream). But the liberating part of facebook, the part that enables a form of unfollowing (without unfriending) is hiding.

    Since the Facebook news feed is the primary stream to see what people are up to, I find that I can easily control the amount of information flowing through by hiding. As with spammers in twitter, I hide mostly to get rid of the fluffy application updates, which I find not at all interesting. Occasionally, I do hide people from my news feed if I find that they choose to discuss topics I find uninteresting or just become too chatty (I loathe small talk). Doing so doesn't limit their ability to see what I've posted, unless they choose to do so.

    I have only had the question of whether I've read or replied to someone's post come up a few times, and I basically tell them that I treat my facebook feed like I do twitter… I try and keep up with it, but often I post without reading. I make an effort to keep up with replies, but anything else is subject to skipping over without warning or apology. As with all things, if something resonates with me, then I pursue it. If not, I move along… so in that sense I guess I try to stay as honest to myself online as I would behave in the real world. It doesn't always happen that way, but it's what I strive for. 😉

    As for anonymity… I find little value in it. From my perspective, the only reason to be anonymous is to allow yourself the flexibility to say or do things you would be embarrassed by if anyone you know learned about it. That isn't to say that I share all parts of my life with everyone I know. In fact, this is true even in Facebook; I make liberal use of friend lists in order to filter visibility to content (mostly pictures) to handle privacy of some information and/or to cause discomfort to some portions of my friend population ( it can be one thing to know about something in a person's life, and quite another to see it in living color). But, again, this kind of filtering happens in real life as well as online. I personally try to minimize it — friends (IRL and online) are known to utter “TMI” around me a fair amount… heh — but it really is necessary in some cases. 😉

    For me, I see these online experiences as being an extension of myself… allowing me to share with more people I know what's going on in my life than I could ever hope to manage if I had to find time to be with them all IRL. Anything else would be the projection of a falsehood that really wouldn't be worth anyone's time.

  3. There's definitely a difference. I just don't get the online manifestation of pleasantries. Why would Mom call me to ask why I didn't comment on Aunt Margaret's LOLcats video? If we were at Aunt Margaret's house watching the video, you'd get the same drivel out of me that you will on FB.

    What I don't get is why the IRL social niceties are required on FB, when it's so obviously just a game?

    I guess it's my personality 🙂

  4. I use Hide liberally on FB to avoid social gaming spam. Your loathing of small talk is exactly the problem I have w FB. It doesn't exist on Twitter, at least for me, b/c I don't find it terribly interesting and doubt anyone would, but FB's friend model exposes friends of friends to small talk too, on purpose. So, in that regard, FB is more annoying.

    I don't personally find any value in anonymity and never use it. My point is that it seems to make for more interesting content. Twitter is varying degrees of anonymous, placing the focus more on content vs. relationship, whereas FB has always been about authenticity.

    They are very different animals. My filter for FB stuff is way finer-grained that it is for Twitter, which leads me to believe I'm more interesting on Twitter.

    It's all relative 🙂

  5. Given your admirable tendency to respond to even the most banal commenters (*cough*) on this blog, I can see where FB could present this sort of “you hang up first” problem. My filters are a little different for FB; if it's been more than 12 hours, I'm unlikely to respond on a comment thread or status update, unless the conversation is unusually compelling. I definitely don't feel a need to respond to most of my friends' status updates, and we're all probably grateful for that.

    Oddly enough, I have the reverse problem with Twitter. I find myself going back way farther in the timeline than I really should, just in case I've missed something interesting. Probably means I need to follow more people, to break the habit with sheer weight of impracticality.

  6. Thought about ignoring this comment for my own amusement 🙂 That tendency did occur to me, but I didn't expect anyone to mention it. Comments here are way more deliberate, so I feel that I owe them more attention. That said, I do feel the pull of that tendency on FB and Twitter at times.

    You know I recommend following more people on Twitter. It has spiced up my stream substantially, and with Chirp this week, I'm sure I'll add a lot more.

  7. By size alone, you'd have to put FB as a prohibitive favorite. Strange things happen in fights though . . .

  8. My boss told me to post anonymously after I called BS on someone online and they emailed bosses boss. I've also been kicked off of modded places for simply being direct.

    But I agree strongly with your view of repercussions, which is why I've strongly advocated for posting under real names since usenet was the big thing.

    But now I have a 14 year old, newbie to facebook. I think of teenage silliness, and have to wonder, do you really want that on Your Permanent Record? Of course, I miss stuff on facebook because it scrolls off so fast, but that is mere current tech. I think of the dumb things we did as teenagers, and am glad I can dribble that out as I see fit.

    My best friend of 40 years just majorly stroked out, and I couldn't figure out if I should say anything on his barely-used facebook page. He won't be on there again – the person we knew is basically gone – I did contact one person who hadn't heard (and was wondering why his calls weren't being answered, they were supposed to have dinner the next weekend), through facebook private message.

    I have to rebuild my kids laptop again, the collaboration site his class was working a project on infected half the class at least. Web 2.0…

  9. I guess Twitter is somewhere between full disclosure and total anonymity. You can be fully anonymous, but there's a record of what you say and to whom.

    Your point about permanent records is a bit sad for kids today, but then again, since everyone was young once, everyone should empathize what that entails.

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