Our digital selves are cleaved in two
As Facebook and Google attempt to muscle into each other's turf, a new kind of Web is being born, one with "Like" buttons everywhere and Twitter all over the place. Where it's all going is anyone's guess, but one trend is the emergence of two different Webs - one private and anonymous, the other public and social.
We are all constantly making decisions about whether to share our identities online, for example when posting a comment, visiting a site that requires registration to see certain content or providing an email address when purchasing something. Both Webs are the product of these countless decisions - meaning they are basically structures reflecting the sum total of everyone's privacy settings.
The social and anonymous Webs coexist and overlap, and are composed of many smaller, more or less private ecosystems. Many sites require sign-ins, but don't share the activity of signed-in users with other visitors; at the same time, most people adopt semi-anonymous hooks or non-identifiable aliases when choosing their login information. Behavioral targeting allows advertisers to track an individual's online activity and collect a great deal of information - but only on condition that they not capture a person's name or (even worse) reveal information about his online usage to other users. E-commerce straddles the social and anonymous Webs: On one hand, shoppers go to sites and share sensitive information like their credit card numbers on the assumption this information will be kept private and only used for transactions specifically authorized by the consumer - but on the other hand, online reviews and recommendations posted on the same sites pretty much have to be public to be meaningful (of course, they can still be anonymous - but may be seen as more credible with a real name attached).
Acknowledging all these areas of overlap, gradations and subtle distinctions, the fact remains that two separate Webs exist, and are unlikely to go away. Indeed, while the balance may be shifting in favor of the social side, this will never entirely supplant or replace the anonymous Web, simply because the latter serves a number of important purposes.
The term for people who consume social media without signing in or otherwise identifying themselves is "lurkers" - a word with rather derogatory connotations, suggesting a back-alley criminal lying in wait. But the fact is, we are all lurkers at some point or another, and usually with good reason. There are some offensive forums whose users occasionally repost my online articles, and I periodically check them out to make sure my content is being used appropriately (i.e., not altered or otherwise distorted, or placed adjacent to something that's really beyond the pale). When I do this, it's my specific intent not to be noticed.
Other people who visit online forums and consume social media will have their own reasons for withholding their identities by revealing only non-identifying information (porn sites and political forums leap to mind). But the decision to maintain anonymity doesn't mean the individual is lost to advertisers and marketers; it just means that a different kind of messaging is appropriate for reaching anonymous consumers. After all, in the heyday of traditional media, broadcast TV, radio and mass publications like newspapers essentially served anonymous audiences, but were still effective advertising platforms. This is not to suggest that advertisers transfer these models to the anonymous Web; it's just evidence that anonymous advertising is possible and effective.
Erik Sass is a MediaPost reporter and columnist. His second book, The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America, was released this fall.