Facebook is planning to allow anonymity with new Secret rival app

8 Oct 2014

After skirmishing with LGBT groups over its stand on its real name policy, social network Facebook is now going the whole hog and is working on a new app that will allow total anonymity.

If Facebook is the first generation of social media, and WhatsApp and Snapchat the second generation of social, then apps that provide users with greater control over their identity, such as Secret, represent the third generation of social as we know it.

Rather than divulge all and suffer judgment or notoriety, a near decade of social media has resulted in an almost counter-intuitive backlash: people still want to divulge, but keep their identity private.

In recent weeks, Facebook has been forced to backtrack on its stance on allowing members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities to use pseudonyms rather than their real names as a way to identify themselves.

According to The New York Times, Facebook is now working on a stand-alone mobile app that allows users to interact without having to use their real names.

It is unclear if the app will have any connection with Facebook’s main service.

The next social storm

Either way, intentionally or unintentionally, Facebook has waded into a core argument about the next stage of social. It believes real identity is vital insofar as it helps protect people from all kinds of situations, from bullying and harassment to fraud and xenophobia.

At the same time, as an on-trend business, it cannot ignore the latest developments and users’ desires.

In apologising to LGBT groups and others, Facebook’s head of product Chris Cox said there was a genuine purpose to Facebook’s real name policy, and said the whole situation emerged after an individual decided to report several hundred accounts as fake because people weren’t using their given, legal names.

“Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name,” Cox said. “The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess. Part of what’s been so difficult about this conversation is that we support both of these individuals, and so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook.

“We believe this is the right policy for Facebook for two reasons. First, it’s part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm. Second, it’s the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm.

“The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.

“All that said, we see through this event that there’s lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who’s real and who’s not, and the customer service for anyone who’s affected,” Cox said.

“These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that. With this input, we’re already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors.”

Social networking image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years