Identity is the essence of Facebook. From day one, the social network has existed to connect people who know each other in real life. But now the company is reportedly building an anonymous app, which seems to fly in the face of its core mission.
Anonymity doesn’t add to Facebook’s data trove, or help the network sell ads. Popular anonymous apps like Secret and Whisper don’t have to worry about turning a profit, but Facebook’s venture capital-funded startup days are long gone. So what does an anonymous app do for a social network based on collecting information on your real life?
It’s unclear exactly what form the anonymous app will take, but based on a Tuesday New York Times report on the network’s anonymity initiative, it doesn’t appear to be related to Facebook’s real-name policy debacle. The company recently clarified its position on real names in the wake of protests from the LGBTQ community, but the move toward “authentic” versus legal names is a separate issue. So what would an anonymous Facebook look like, exactly?
Conversations vs. gossip
There are a few hints as to how Facebook will use anonymity differently from other apps. The developer leading the project, Josh Miller, founded Branch, a forum for conversations that Facebook acquired for $15 million back in January. Miller was tasked with “building Branch at Facebook scale” and leading a Conversations group within Facebook’s NYC office.
After the Times report dropped, Miller tweeted a series of thoughts about anonymous apps:
1/ Anonymous Apps: Identity isn’t a product goal. Focus should be on what human desire you want to enable, not anonymity as the focal point.— Josh Miller (@joshm) October 8, 2014
2/ Anonymous Apps: Even then, it’s very hard to build retentive communities without “regulars”. You need some sort of recurring identity.— Josh Miller (@joshm) October 8, 2014
3/ Anonymous Apps: Also, anonymous w friends + anonymous w schools breeds gossip. Can encourage positive use cases through product design.— Josh Miller (@joshm) October 8, 2014
So it seems Facebook will avoid the most obvious—and problematic—way of using anonymity to let friends tell each other “truths.” Miller acknowledges the problems with location-based anonymity, which is most clearly seen with Yik Yak. The app is based on proximity and has provided a breeding ground for school shooting threats and cyber bullying. Facebook has dealt with its own issues around cyber bullying, even with real names attached. (For some reason, teens seem nonplussed about that.)
So if the network wants to take Branch discussions and make them anonymous, what better concept to build around than the health app Reuters reported on last week? The Times’ sources said the two may be related, which makes sense. Facebook wouldn’t be able to monetize your health information without a public outcry, so allowing anonymous discussions around medical conditions would give Facebook users a safe outlet. Many are already using the network as a health forum in Facebook’s popular Groups section, so a stand-alone app that allowed pseudonyms to chat about serious issues would foster community without encouraging bad behavior.