Anonymous Social Networks
Social networks generally thrived on face time, belonging, and legacy. We enjoy recognition for the presentation of our character, recognizing others provides a sense of community, and our profile is a lasting record of our experience.
Recently, the idea of an ‘anonymous social network’ has emerged with several projects that complicate the definition of a social network by including or excluding features most people associate with the medium. What is a social network without profiles? What is community without identity?
Related Article: Anonymous Social Networks: Too Big To Succeed?
Can you define ‘social network?’
Considering that 1/6 of the world has a Facebook profile, the idea that the term ‘social network’ might have an ambiguous definition seems odd. If you look for a definition you won’t find consensus.
First a bit of humor in the circular definition I found at the MacMillan Dictionary site:
A website such as Facebook or MySpace that allows you to communicate with friends and make new friends
So, friends. Now here’s the slightly better definition at Dictionary.com:
An online community of people with a common interest who use a Web site or other technologies to communicate with each other and share information, resources.
That casts a pretty wide net, and could include just about any website with user submitted content. Looking for a more academic definition I stumbled on the following written in 2007:
We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.
That seems to capture the nature of our larger social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, and Stumbleupon. But it’s missing one key point I mention above. Legacy. The most popular social networks include a list of activity that serves as a journal of the user’s experiences.
Innovation changes definitions
Until very recently, most people would say that social networks, like Facebook, are centered on a user’s personality. You choose a name, create a profile, add personal information, and share your character by posting ideas and media.
Yet, as with most web technologies and services, experimentation and innovation necessitate continued redefinition. Instagram is a good example. While considered a social network, the app/site places little emphasis on a user’s personal information. And while users may follow friends, the site does little to encourage social grouping. It’s a social network built around sharing one form of media and a user’s personality is primarily expressed in that way.
But there are many projects that are pushing even further into uncharted territory and further stretching the definition of a social network.
Anonymous social networks
The existence of a social network without user profiles upends our present definition. But a few websites also allow users to post information and media in a relatively anonymous manner. Possibly the most famous of these is 4chan.
In recent years a number of ‘anonymous confession’ websites have popped up offering users the ability to share secrets and inner feelings without fear of being exposed or reprisal.
Here are a number of other projects that describe themselves in terms of social networking, but which do not include either user names, profiles, or personal information.
Anonymous Social Networking Sites And Apps
The gray area
Have a look at this site. Maybe our ABOUT page. We feature entirely anonymous posts and comments. Is Anonyming a social network? Certainly not by the standard definition. And yet, with more traffic, the site could be ‘an online community of people with a common interest’ of ‘communicat[ing] with each other and shar[ing] information.’
You might argue that it’s not a social network because you can’t easily form connections with other users. However, like Instagram, the site is more focused on sharing content than creating community. The site itself is that community. A community without faces, but certainly a shared experience. So maybe we can have a social network just based around content.
Of course we seem to be throwing the definition of ‘network’ out the window. ‘Anonymous network’ is nearly an oxymoron. But in very contemporary terms, the internet is already the network we are sharing. Perhaps a social network can be better defined by the collective intention of those using it, rather than the specific technology or mode of interaction.
What are we left with?
Recent trends have the younger audience moving away from the catch-all, multi-media social networks like Facebook, toward sites and apps, like Instagram that are less focused on a profile and more on the experience of sharing specific media.
And the range of online projects referred to as social networks continues to expand as online social interaction adapts to changing possibilities and tastes. This rapid evolution necessitates an adaptive rather than static definition of social networks. That doesn’t mean there is no definition. It does mean it may be hard to generalize over time.
A failure to define would be a sad end to this story, so what can we really say, in general, at this point? Maybe, unfortunately, something closer to what we found at Dictionary.com. A social network is an online venue where people share information and media and interact around that content. Not too flashy, but this can only be a work in progress.