Messaging and anonymity are in vogue these days. Lots of fast growing apps. Big name venture firms like Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, and Sequoia Capital investing in the space. And lots of other big name venture capitalists coming out against the evils of anonymous apps. Names like Marc Andreessen, Mark Suster, and
Hunter Walk have all come out against anonymous apps on an ethical basis.
Yesterday another prominent entrepreneur/investor, Jason Calacanis, joined in on Twitter.
— jason (@Jason) April 30, 2014
Before reading on you really should take a moment to read the New York Mag article that Jason refers to in his tweet. It is horrific.
I believe all these guys are right. I believe that anonymity is an important topic to discuss. I believe that people who create software have an obligation to build services that do good. I believe that anonymity is bad.
I am an advisor to Yik Yak, the company Jason referenced in his tweet. In our first meeting I counseled them to get teenagers off the app. They implemented geofencing around middle and high schools. I connected them to their investment lead. I have been trying to convince them that pseudonymity and reputation mechanisms need to be built into Yik Yak to create acceptable social norming in the user base.
So I responded to Jason. The user behavior is loathsome. The geofencing is a start. But it’s not enough. The mask of anonymity is strong. When people have that mask on they will say anything they want about anybody. People can lie. People can break laws. There are no consequences to actions when you are anonymous. Online anonymity removes a basis of modern civilization that children learn when they are very young. Actions have consequences. That is not the case when you are anonymous. When you are anonymous social norms slide away. And Social norms are very important to regulating inappropriate online behavior.
A way to inject social norms into these types of communities is to not make being anonymous the default and only option when signing up for a such a service. To provide an option, not a requirement, to create a pseudonymity. This does three things. One, it makes some people in the community identifiable (but not by name). Two, a pseudonymity in and of itself increases the reputation of the user who selects one. And three, it enables the pseudonyms to create acceptable social norms and hold the anonymous cowards to them. Pseudonymity makes people behave well. And good behavior in turn creates positive human energy.
Good technology should have a positive impact on the lives of the people that use it. That is one of the wonders of the Internet. The positive impact that it has had on so many people’s lives. Right now anonymous apps are not so positive. The apps are either going to have to change to allow social norming or the people that use them are going to go away.
Update: Hunter Walk replied to me via Twitter and stated that he “did not come out against anon apps.” He is of course correct about his position. I did not intend to misrepresent his thoughts on the matter. Striking through his name above. Here is his thoughtful post on “Are We What We Fund? Should VCs Only Back What They Believe is Morally Correct.”