The Paradox of Privacy and Anonymity

Last week I was on a monthly call with my mentor (if you don’t have a mentor in your organization, I highly recommend you get one – I find my mentor’s insight and suggestions always invaluable – I never finish a call with her without having jotted down several websites to check out and names of people to network with), and in the course of our discussion, I mentioned that I recently spent some time one evening Googling myself and checking what information is available online about me. While we were on the phone, she Googled herself and quickly found herself on the Spokeo website, which had ranked high in her Google search listing. She was unhappily surprised that her Spokeo listing was so complete, including the names of her husband and kids. She immediately filled out the form to remove herself from their database. Before I removed my Spokeo entry, I remember it linking me to my siblings, parents, and including a guesstimated mortgage balance and salary.

But as Spokeo itself points out, it’s just an aggregator – it gathers information from third party sources such as phonebooks, social networks, real estate records, online maps and marketing surveys. So removing yourself from Spokeo only deletes your Spokeo entry – not the information in all of the other databases you’re in. (However I still recommend you do it – here’s the page.)

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /
 I posted the same information about the need to Google yourself on a regular basis on my Facebook page later than night, and again, had an interesting conversation going. One friend pointed out that she found all sorts of information about her father on Spokeo, yet he almost never was on the Internet, and certainly was not sharing any personal information if he was online. Another friend shared that she'd found she was labeled as belonging to a particular religion based only on her last name, even though she wasn't affiliated with that religion, and she would have never filled out anything claiming that she was.

I think I’m fairly savvy about how judicious I am about sharing information – even though we all know (or should) that there is no true privacy on the Internet. My Facebook privacy settings are set to friends only. I never answer marketing questions about my salary. My mortgage balance is known only to my bank and me. From my LinkedIn profile, you can easily find out which companies I’ve worked for, and for how long, and I’m fine with that. Yet the sources Spokeo used had it all anyhow.

This ability to sift through our online presence and extract information about us is a marketer’s dream, and as a marketer I can appreciate that. (Google, Facebook and LinkedIn are appreciating it too, since ad revenue is the reason their income and market valuations are so high.) No longer do we marketers have to pay huge sums to saturate the marketplace with our messages to get the number of impressions we’re seeking. Instead, we can market to consumers personally, entirely based on an analysis of each person's online presence. The advantage to you (and me) as consumers is that we no longer have to wade through pages and pages of irrelevant products and services to find the specific topics we’re interested in. Individually targeted marketing is our new reality.

And here’s where I get to the paradox. How could the online world where controlling the release of our private information is a constant struggle concurrently create an environment where the availability of anonymous posting has spawned anonymous cyberbullies, called trolls?

I enjoy reading articles, blogs, and opinion pieces online, and I’ve always enjoyed reading and learning from other readers’ reactions to and opinions of the articles and news. But, I’m noticing an increase in that kind of obnoxious troll behavior in the comments of many blogs and news articles — the most amazingly racist, homophobic, and mean-spirited venom spewing from someone’s keyboard – and all because the author can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. Are there really that many maladjusted souls out there? Or is it the modern day, online equivalent to the mob mentality — the groups responsible for lynching, witch burning and the like?  Mob members feel free to ignore normal societal behavior constraints due to the protection gained by the inherent anonymity of a mob — activities that they would never take part in if they could be identified individually. Where because the troll’s (or mob member’s) neighbors, family members, boss or colleagues are unaware of the troll’s participation in the hatemongering, the troll feel free to get away with it.

I started this blog post last night and I found a spot-on supporting article this morning on Twitter (thanks @eric_andersen), which gives a psychological viewpoint on how the anonymity of the web affects those who troll: Anonymous alcoholics? Study finds web trolls get a feeling of abandon similar to drunks.

Similar to other advances in technology there always seem to be the potential for good and the potential for evil, and the Web and social networking are no exception. There are so many potential positives: collaboration, crowdsourcing, learning, teaching, exchanging viewpoints, and connecting with people across the globe. But we still need to remain vigilant about the flip, darker side – constantly checking on and controlling the sharing of our personal information, and working to disable the mob mentality that encourages web trolls.