What if people want their internet anonymity back?

Privacy. Data. Surveillance. Those were some of the hot topics discussed at SXSW Interactive in Austin last week.

From the keynotes by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who warned of government surveillance to new sharing apps such as Whisper, Secret and Snapchat, one trend became clear. People want their anonymity back.

Whether it is being tracked by the government or private companies or just being overly visible to friends and family, there is a noticeable shift in attitudes from past SXSW conferences where authenticity and location based apps (Foursquare, Highlight) broke through compared with this year’s conference where people are still looking to share, but they don’t want their identity to be associated with what they have to say and where they say it.

Suddenly, it feels like, the era of authenticity online is coming to a screeching halt. Some of it is in the name of whistle-blowing and exposing bad actors, while frankly, some of it is because we all feel a little overexposed.

Is this reaction justified? Perhaps. Many of us have spent the past decade on Facebook, enjoying free email services such as Gmail, checking into locations on Foursquare and tweeting out our everyday thoughts on Twitter. And for many, this has all been a positive experience, but as we become more mature users of the Internet, we become more aware of the drawbacks when it comes to privacy.  Last fall, Pew Research found that 50% of people (up from 33%) worry about how much of their information is online. 

As someone who has worked in digital marketing for nearly a decade, I have always been aware that the online information highway is not a one-way street. If you accept the Terms of Service and decide to share something online or through an app expect that others can – and will – track and model your general activity. 

I’ve always been an advocate for a more open, authentic Internet. Mostly, because I remember when it wasn’t that way. There was a time when the Internet was fairly anonymous. Those were the days when the Internet seemed ruthless, lawless and a place where anyone could do anything without any repercussions. Authenticity online changed a lot of that. It made the Internet nicer, more accountable and yes, more trackable because you can tie content online with real people and real locations.

However, what we face today is difficult territory: we need to strike a balance between authenticity and anonymity. It can’t be just one or the other. We need to create an Internet that allows both. And whether you are a private company that monetizes user data to keep the lights on, or the U.S. government trying to monitor the Internet for matters of national security — trying to strike that balance is no easy task.

As a user said recently on Secret: “In Silicon Valley, Secret is far more a mechanism to call out bad behavior of people in positions of power rather than to bully the average person or good actor.” With that power of anonymity, comes much responsibility for the individual. Everyone has a choice about how much he or she wants to share online. Everyone needs to be accountable for that information and the impact it will have on friends, family and the public.

In the end, this is why conferences like SXSW are still important. They make us talk to each other, in person, about these challenges. With better understanding of both sides of this issue, we can not only educate, but also find compromise. As I often say, if you want to have a private conversation in today’s online environment, the best thing you can do it is sit down in a crowded bar and talk to each other, face to face. And fortunately, Austin has no lack of those kinds of establishments.

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