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Social media: the enemy of anonymity?

March 30, 2011

Let’s have a look at the impact of social networking sites in the context of the history of the internet. There are those who believe social media platforms are changing the nature of the world wide web altogether, and not always for the best.

Websites that bring people together in a place where they feel able to divulge information about themselves (for example, on Facebook or MySpace) offer an example of how potentially to breathe financial life into online journalism. Media will survive online with no little help from targeted advertising.

The kind of information collected – even by the sites of national newspapers – about readers and users is crucial in adding value to the site’s advertising space. It will keep large organisations afloat, help smaller ones to grow, and, in the future even more than now, help to employ people in the media industry. Although views may vary on the long-term efficacy of the Murdoch business plan, The Times website is an example of a content-provider hoping to attract advertising revenue by promising engaged users, whose interests are known and who will be visiting often and for long periods. This might be commercially more valuable to some advertisers than a site that gets a lot more traffic.

Amazon can recommend what DVDs to buy because they know (in theory) the kind of thing you like. Facebook uses and will continue to grow its targeted advertising programme. It is well placed to do so, because it knows your “Interests”, “Activities” and all the groups you belong to.

And there are many useful and positive consequences of sites that demand information from you. But this was not how the internet was first conceived. There are substantial arguments, as outlined in The Economist’s technology quarterly this month, to support the kind of anonymity that was initially the web’s hallmark. In 1993, in the internet’s early days, a cartoon in the New Yorker featured two dogs in front of a computer. One said to the other: “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” The Economist tells us the joke encapsulates “the freewheeling anonymity of the early stages of internet adoption.” But that anonymity is being eroded, with information passed around more freely than ever and being used for more sophisticated means. Facebook is at the centre of this.

Facebook, along with Quora, the question-and-answer site, and others, require real names. They even block users suspected of providing pseudonyms. Security researchers have shown that by using your real name you can be identified when you visit other sites. Cookies allow companies to recognise when someone returns to their site from the same computer, and they reveal some browsing history. But they do not normally know your actual identity.

But until a recent change under pressure from campaigners Facebook was sending data about its members to the same advertisers that use cookies to track browsing histories. It would have been possible to have matched up the Facebook data with the browsing information and remove your anonymity.

Meanwhile Facebook itself can track your browsing. If you click on an embedded Facebook “Like” button on another site, that alerts the social network to other elements of your browsing. Indeed, merely visiting a page containing a “Like” button while logged into Facebook will notify them you were there whether you “Like” the thing or not.

My colleagues and I are generally firmly in favour of an open online world, and although privacy is closely guarded by all, anonymity is slipperier. How do you feel about people who know your name and other details also knowing your browsing history? Is it paranoid to feel concerned?

One way or the other, it is argued, anonymity is significant. The reason? It’s liberating. To quote The Economist a final time: “It lets people go online and read about fringe political viewpoints, look up words they are embarrassed not to know, or search for a new job without being thought extremist, stupid or disloyal.”

The net is changing, mainly for the better, but if it is, as Jeff Jarvis has suggested, the real world transplanted online, a place where we live, only better-connected, is there a chance that one day, all of us will essentially be being stalked?

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