Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Google on Anonymity VS Trust

Last weekend there was a live screencast of the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society, and one of the meetings that I tuned in to was the one on Media and Civic Engagement. The members of that meeting was a who’s who of media, regulatory and business moguls that are trying to, or have cracked, the online space (Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Marissa Mayer of Google, Peter Shane of the Knight Foundation, Dana Boyd, etc…).

Google on Anonymity VS Trust

I heard a very troubling comment during that discussion, and surprisingly it came from Marissa Mayer of Google (found at 52:45). That was how anonymity is the enemy of trust, and that she doesn’t see a future for anonymity online. It destroys community and promotes anarchy.

To give some sense of reference, without having to watch the video, here is a word-for-word transcription of Marissa’s comments. It starts with her talking about youth and misinformation on the web leading to apathy, she stated:

“…I think it’s really important as we look at tools to think about how we can support fact checking, how can we guard against misinformation, how is there going to be established an element of authority and trustworthiness? …I grew up with the newspaper and the encyclopedia, which you could trust. And now you have blogs, which are held often as news and often aren’t factual. Or you have Wikipedia, which usually gets most things right, but there are a lot times there is vandalism or corrections that need to be made.”

“When you look at the elements of anonymity and the lack of accountability that happens on the web, it really does start to create doubt in the fibers of who can you trust. Especially when you think of why should I engage? The sense of identity. If I’m anonymous and I’m not accountable for my actions and there are other people out there putting out a lot of misinformation of which the same is true, I think it does lead to apathy and a lack of engagement, which is why I think it is important as we look at these tools to understand the effects of identity. To understand the effect of accountability, authority, trustworthiness and make sure that we’re developing tools and social systems online that encourage an element of engagement and try to fight that apathy trend that says, ‘well I just can’t trust anything. Why should I care?’.

On the question of if there is a way to hone in on the issue of misinformation, beside media literacy:

“Well, I think there are two ways to look at it, on the institutional level and on the individual level. So I think that what you’re seeing is that there are institutions that are rising up online that basically have an element of brand and credibility and standards that they apply. When you look at the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, inherently the people who run those organizations are saying that here are stories I believe, I believe they’re verified enough that I’m willing to attach my brand and my name to it. So you can see that that’s starting to happen on an institution level online.”

And I also think there are individual systems where people are verified or credentialed, or you have a profile that tells all about you and shows the other contributions you’ve made to the system. Just there’s greater accountability on the personal level… So I think a lot of the systems that support pure anonymity… I really believe that virtual systems should mirror physical systems. The physical world has been around for a lot longer, and in the physical world you really can’t do anything anonymously. So when you look at systems online that break that paradigm where you can be completely anonymous, or be whoever you want to be, without any since of history or of what you did last week, that’s not really reality and that breaks down the elements of trust and authority.

That’s about where I jumped in with my comments on not being able to trust those who are monitoring your online speech. Where Marissa then answered:

“Well, I think anonymity has its place. So there’s certainly times, when you know you should have commentary or some type of act giving should be anonymous. But, by and large most systems should have accountability the same way they do in the physical world.”

Besides all of my thoughts swirling around the fact that the web really grew due to anonymity, I balked at this comment because I was surprised at hearing one of the highest Google executives speak so lightly of it.

Projecting Our World Onto Others

Maybe this is where I differ a little from my American tech counterparts. You see, there’s something about growing up in a country where you can’t pretend to believe that the government really has your best interests at heart that makes one a little squeemish about not having this anonymous free speech. For, if it wasn’t anonymous, then it definitely wouldn’t be free.

We have a way of projecting our world view on to those around us. In this case, I believe Google (or Marissa) is doing just that. Having these open, trusting, everyone-knows-everyone systems is all well and good when you live in the US. It’s not so good in other parts of the world.

It’s especially not good when you ask who controls all that personal information, and how they let outside bodies (government or otherwise) access that personal data about you.

I came to terms a few years ago about having a lot of personal information on the web, open to others. That’s a personal decision, and not one that any company should be making claims to knowing what’s right to do or not. What I hear, extrapolating from this, is that it’s okay if you don’t want to be a part of it, you can always opt out – but if you do, you also opt out of any meaningful part in the discussion. Frankly, I find that troubling.

Video Archive

Below is the video archive of this talk on Media and Civic Engagement, and is about 1.5 hours (browse the “on demand library” and it’s the 6th from the top on the list):

[Rachel Sterne of Groundreport created a great backchannel platform for viewers to discuss these items in real-time, and there was some direct discussion happening between online commenters and the participants in the room.]


  1. Good analysis. Of course, Google has to advocate, albeit somewhat surrupticiously (sp?), for their responsibility under the Patriot Act, that gives the US government reign to request information on people who frequent the Internet in case of court requests. So if the entity (Google) can be anonymous in its action of gathering information for such requests, and if such requests can be ordered without due cause but only upon suspicion, then can transparancy of the Internet user (i.e. non-anonymity) really be in the user’s best interest? People may say “hey I’ve nothing to hide” but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be suspect and burden of proof fall upon the user. It’s troubling, cettainly, and something of which we all should at least some awareness.

  2. Indeed, very surprising… Especially if you know that Google was saying the contraty few years ago, e.g. I remember once I found a blog on blogger that was promoting violence in school (kind of Columbine-kiddie website) and many users were horrified by this and asked Google to close the blog. Google response at this time was “It’s a no no”. Free-speech.

    “Or you have Wikipedia, which usually gets most things right,” – Eheheh, just to nail down Wikipedia and promote the Knol launched by Google which required account verification…

    I am for anonymity on the web (usually has 5 nicknames and always trie to never give my real name) but it is getting really difficult nowadays… I don’t know if you noticed it but nowadays a Google Account is mandatory to use most of Google services (lately, 18th of August, Google account is mandatory to open Google Adsense; same with Knol, Google Maps)…

    You made a good comment about online free speech and BigBrother watching us… But, the (public) web is moving forward and will soon be a non-anynomous place where BigBrothers will watch all you moves. Oups !!! It’s not new since most amercian firms are tracking user behaviour without explicit consent. Just wondering when ISP will start earning money on our back by selling confidential information. Welcome to the world of third-party cookies, beacon and data gathering for our homeland security !!

  3. Erik, excellent post.

    Thanks again for joining the conversation– your participation in the back channel provided an important and valuable perspective at Aspen. GroundReport.com also recognizes the need of anonymity, especially in regions with regimes of censorship and press intimidation.

  4. Hash, interesting that Google would take this stance. It is something I would expect of an entrenched old school company. With Google controlling a great percentage of online search, it makes me wonder what will become of our information that they have been gathering all these years…

  5. Hi Hash!

    I could write a book in response to this post. I agree and disagree with you both.

    Anonymity should be a choice. A choice not only of the participant but also of the platform. There have been platforms that have thrived because of their anonymity – like Craigslist – and those that thrive because they’ve outlawed it – like facebook. Likewise, people can thrive online whether they are anonymous or transparent. I do think that when you choose to be anonymous you give up other rights and benefits. I don’t think it will ever work well for Google to require real names across all their properties but they may have some tools that it works for (not sure that Knol is one of them though.)

    – I agree with Ms Mayer in that I also believe that virtual systems [involving people work best] when they mirror the physical world [at its best.] (my edits are in [])
    – For me, if you’re making money from whatever you’re doing online, and your customers are reading you, its simple; you better get comfortable with being public about your identity. It’s not that being anonymous makes you less trustworthy – it’s that being yourself makes you more trustworthy (than you’d otherwise be.) The whole “brand you” thing is real. That said, I don’t know that you have to brand your real name to benefit or for that matter, that using a consistent pseudonym online is equivalent anonymity. That’s where I disagree with you, Hash – the government these days unfortunately does not need you to sign your name to your comments to know you wrote them. [Hi GW] Depending on the lengths you are going to conceal your identity online, it may be less of a risk than many people think to abandon their identity.

    Summary: I like to pick and choose where I sign my name.

  6. edit: … abandon their *anonymity.*

  7. Thanks for the responses on this everyone.

    @David G – I think you stated something pretty important when you said,

    “It’s not that being anonymous makes you less trustworthy – it’s that being yourself makes you more trustworthy”

    . And here’s where I agree with you that sometimes it’s in your own best interest to be exactly who you are online – and that decision should be yours. Where the danger lies is when you would like to participate anonymously and cannot because you are opposed to breaking your own rules of privacy. That’s not an even playing field.

    @Peperuka – granted, we’re moving towards a place where the gov’t and companies can, and sometimes are, monitoring all you do. Where it can be increasingly difficult to remain anonymous. However, we shouldn’t give them that ground without a fight. There is a real reason for the need to privacy and anonymity, and anyone who disagrees can take a look at the article posted below.

    [on a related note, there is an excellent short Wired article on the “if you have nothing to hide…” argument related to privacy that just came out yesterday.]

  8. I think that there is always a level of anonymity in physical society – there are always actions one can take with out others knowing. You can write a note and leave it on a car, in your neighbors mailbox.

    So – the idea of the internet loosing this or that a giving up of anonymity in order to participate is not a true reflection of society. However, it is certainly true that there are times when your actions may be better taken as an anonymous person.

  9. Real world isn’t anonymous MY ASS… nobody asks for my personal info when I go shopping, watch movies, go to a bar / club .. swimming pool… nobody is watching everything I do.. nobody knows how much money in my pocket, nobody knows what stuff i checked out at a grocery store, nobody knows what kind of books i’m buying from a library.. this is bullshit

  10. Thanks for this post. I finally got to it and posted my thoughts. It’s a curious position for Mayer to take.

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