Online Identity Series: Google+ vs Anonymous

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There has been a lot of talk lately about the validity of social networks, the Arab Spring, and  especially with the whole Google+ fake names hubub and the constant response by critics that Google doesn’t ‘get’ social.  You know, it sounds something like, “Why won’t Google let me be who I wanna be’ on their newest social network?  Arghz!”  Besides the middle-class laments that are common in this case, real questions do arise for journalists and bloggers using popular social networks who want to keep a low profile when handing out information online.

It’s a question raised by Google’s critics, specifically by the hacker group known as Anonymous:  why do we care if people know us by our online identities we’ve chosen versus our real names?  And who says we can trust governments with our online activities and identities in times of crisis?  Let’s dig deeper into hacktivism for the sake of social causes.

I’m not much one for conspiracy theories, but it’s not a far stretch to say that speaking with people online via social networks is not a complete mirror of social relations in real life.  We’re getting closer, with the introduction of various kinds of netiquette, but the core issue remains, besides our immediate friends, how well do we know our ‘internet acquaintances?’  And more importantly, what matters more to us, anonymity and freedom on the net, or authenticity?

Anonymous and groups like Anonymous are starting to raise some interesting questions about social networks, hacktivism and the future of the web.  Google+ only allows you to be ‘you’ on the internet.  Facebook, as much as it fails at this, attempts the same.  If you want to have a ‘nickname’ that might refer to your Youtube name, or a handle, that’s one thing, but you can’t actually participate on Google+ without being yourself.  The future of social networks, according to my last post on online identity, is going in the direction of authenticated IDs in some manner.

If we take a look at how social media and internet usage in general is changing the way we get information, there’s something to be said for Anonymous’ new social network, AnonPlus.  They’re interested in creating a network where people who feel safe behind an anonymous veil.

AnonPlus is interesting for the opposite reason that Google+ is interesting.  Google+ makes it easy to add people to your circles and know who they are, where they’re located, and a lot of information that most people used to consider ‘private.’  AnonPlus, on the other hand, is building a framework that allows people to speak out in such a way that they won’t be traced, reprimanded, or otherwise hunted by the governments or organizations they’re speaking out against.  Taken from their website, the plan is thus:

In the simplest of terms [AnonPlus]is many things including a router, black net, web server, social network, and educational system. Created out of the need to give a voice to the millions of those without one , Anon Plus enables those who once were afraid to stand up to oppressive corporations and governments to do so without the fear of repercussions..

It sounds silly to many of us who embrace social media, but there’s a growing number of people who are becoming more vocal of criticizing social media for taking away some of the initial power of the Internet.  Some of the more technologically-inclined among us probably preferred the days of handles and nicknames versus real name authentication that most of us now participate in.  And Google+ faces criticism that people have spent years building up their online names versus their real names, and can only make Google+ profiles for their real names.  And the criticism rings true: isn’t it the case that part of the magic of the online  world is the personas that exist there, versus the real world?  Part of the fun of social media is the un-realness of it all, whether it’s a fake account for a political leader, or just someone’s dog tweeting about that car it just chased.  What will remain of the creative side of online identity when social networks nothing better than a big, ugly Yellow Pages?

Interestingly, Anon Plus was hacked on August 8 by a group of anti-Anonymous hackers called Akinclar.  Apparently Akinclar, who are claimed by some to be Turkish nationalists, didn’t like the idea of an Anonymous network that can act as both a rumour mill and a way to share information anonymously through a typical social media network.  So, it might be the case that there is a demand for such a network, since there are groups that are already vehemently opposed to it.

Even more than that, there is a case to be made for anonymous social networks so that information can be given to the media and to concerned individuals and organizations in a safe manner.  No one wants to be a martyr, and in the days where people can track you and your web history in a rather detailed fashion, exposing yourself as a critic online is becoming more and more dangerous.  The Internet was built on the idea that information could and should be shared freely, without repercussions.  But instead, if you’ve followed anything that’s happened with the Arab Spring, you’ll notice that a lot of the reporting happened through using anonymous sources and gathering information.  It is true that coming forth and speaking the truth as who you are, full ID in place can really help bring legitimacy to media stories and international responses to crisis, there are times when speaking publicly is not a safe nor desirable option.  It almost seems like it’s about time there’s a concentrated network for people to use for social causes to prevent others from finding out who they are, but giving media outlets and international organizations the ability to investigate anonymous tips and test their validity.

It’s true that Anonymous used to be just a gaggle on forum boards in the deep, NSFW underground of the net.  (Any of you who wince a bit when I say 4chan know what I’m talking about.)  However, after a rather serious tangle with the Church of Scientology, Anonymous suddenly became something more than just a group of people who posted pictures on the net…they became a loose group that challenged organizations that they disagreed with.  And they have continued to disagree with a variety of organizations and governments.  They have been especially vocal during the Arab Spring, which suggests that they are interested in promoting some sort of ideal of freedom, justice, and equality (whatever those values might be).

And perhaps some might scoff at the ‘value’ that groups like Anonymous pose, groups like Anonymous challenge the way that we use social media.  Social media was supposed to be about bringing power to our online identities, and it seems clear that Anonymous disputes that claim.  And truthfully, sometimes people not knowing who you are while you interact with others online has value, just like meeting friendly strangers has value.  The real question is, will AnonPlus bring forth a new innovation in social media interactions–namely ones that rely on anonymity, rather than on people knowing who you are?




Brennan Sarich


Brennan Sarich is a practitioner of public relations and digital strategy in Toronto, Ontario. He is a freelancer with several years experience and specializes in online content, event management and social media. Visit his blog or follow him on twitter @bsarich.

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