Is Web Anonymity the New Black?

The Growing Popularity of Services like Whisper, SnapChat and Bitcoin


Little by little we’ve traded away of our right to privacy in exchange for a growing goodie box of tasty online treats. Want to have an encyclopedia of the world’s knowledge available at your fingertips, anytime and anywhere you want it? No problem. Just let us keep a record of everything you’ve ever searched for. Want free email and chat? Sure, just let us read what you’ve written so we’ll be able to offer you more things that you’ll be sure to enjoy. Would you like to speed through the airport security line, without having to take off your shoes? We can do that. Just let us scan your fingerprints first. Often we don’t even realize when we’ve traded away our privacy, assuming that “private messages” are actually private and that nobody is watching which sites we visit. And of course you can’t turn on a television without learning about how the government is now protecting us by listening in to every phone conversation, text message and email we send.

All of that seems to be driving a backlash against the ever-increasing invasion of the privacy that we once believed to be sacrosanct.  Services like SnapChat enable you to send messages that quickly disappear after being read in the hope that they aren’t kept around to embarrass you later.  New services, like Whisper allow you to make and reply anonymously to online “confessions” creating a place for users to chat about things they usually wouldn’t share online.  According to AllThingsD , “Whisper now gets 2.5 billion page views per month. More than 40 percent of users create content, and the average daily user visits for 30 minutes.” (I admit that I really don’t get the appeal but I’m clearly not their target demographic.)

TheNextWeb, also reported that anonymous search engine DuckDuckGo, received over 1 billion searches in 2013. The graph below illustrates their dramatic growth in popularity.

The Bitcoin currency has even been created to allow the online exchange of goods and services with a higher level of  privacy and anonymity. 


If the growing demand for these new services is an indication of a backlash, it is seemingly being driven largely by a new generation of online consumer who, oddly enough have lived their entire online lives in the public and are not old enough to remember a time when every detail of our personal lives was not shared online. 

Sarah Perez at Techcrunch wrote an interesting article titled “The Rise Of The Ephemeralnet” where she proposes that “Web 3.0” will be defined by the trend toward anonymity and secrecy.  She suggests that while Web 2.0 caused a major shift in behavior by enabling user generated content to be easily shared, posted and embedded, the next major and disruptive shift may be a rebellion against the unintended violation of privacy it caused. For the current generation it was new and adventurous to share more and more details with an ever growing online network of friends. However, for the next, who has grown up with their lives plastered across their parents’ Facebook page, the new and rebellious act may be to undo all of the posts and remove all of the photos, wiping the slate clean in an effort to live more private lives.

My Take

I agree that the growth in ephemeral services is a trend. However I don’t agree that this is a trend that will define Web 3.0. I think that’s going a bit far, especially with an Internet of 50 billion connected things looming on the horizon.

I think that these services represent a growing niche accompanied by an increasingly sophisticated segmentation of online behavior where consumers switch to services that are private when they are doing something that they want to remain private. 

As much as one might like to believe that users will rebel against services like Gmail that read private emails in a never-ending quest to improve ad targeting, that just hasn’t happened. Depending on whose numbers you believe Gmail became the most widely adopted email service in 2012 and public social networks like Facebook and Linked continue to show strong growth. Google even announced yesterday that it will now let anyone who finds you on Google+ email you, even if they don't have your email address.

That’s because consumers get enormous value from services that enable you to discover lost friends, get directions to your next appointment or promote your services and have largely accepted the exchange of privacy for convenience and cost. Perhaps we will see a huge backlash that will undermine the very economic foundation that supports Web 2.0, but it's more likely that we'll just see segmentation into (at least) three categories of services that will be used depending on what you are trying to do:

  • Public -Linkedin, Twitter, Website and Blogs will continue to be used for hanging your shingle, building networks and promoting your business.
  • Private (or Semi Private)  -  Sites like Path, Flickr and even Facebook will continue to enable you to limit sharing of more personal updates with friends, family and social groups.
  • Anonymous – Services like Whisper, Burner, and Gryphn, among others, will be used for more private and “sensitive” communications.

The idea of anonymous online social networking isn’t new. For years, chat rooms, virtual worlds and MMOGs like World of Warcraft have allowed users to assume anonymous and even imaginary personalities to interact online. What we are seeing now is a mainstreaming of these types of applications into easier to use web and mobile applications.

I suppose the real question to ask is really whether ephemeral services can really be trusted to protect your privacy or whether security breaches like the one recently experienced by SnapChat will erode the trust needed them to continue to thrive.

Richard Dumas

I have led marketing and product management initiatives for leading technology, media and software companies including Nuance Communications, Sun Micro, Apple Computer and DNN Corp. I received an M.B.A. from M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management and a B.A. in Cognitive Science from Wesleyan University. I am currently the Director of Product and Solution Marketing at Five9, the leading provider of cloud contact center software .