Why online anonymity is coming back in 2017

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One of the great things about going to a new place is the freedom to become an entirely new person. Unfettered by your history, habits, achievements (or lack thereof), you can be whoever you want to be.

In a variety of ways, the internet has provided that freedom — been that new place — for millions around the world. Online, you can be your own invention. You can be who you really are. Right?

Well, kind of. The early days of the internet were a wild experiment in new social freedoms. But as the online and offline world converged, our real-world identities seeped into our online life. Now, Facebook’s core mission is to ensure that your real-world identity — as represented by Facebook, of course — follows you online wherever you go. On Twitter, serious users bring their real identity; any anonymous account is automatically suspect. It feels as though the debate is over: real-world identities have won.

But now, we’re seeing rising numbers of people rediscover the joys and uses of online anonymity. We call these users Incognito Individuals; expect to hear a lot more about them in 2017.

Why the renewed interest in anonymity? Three big reasons.

First, the previous year brought several reminders that the online space finds new ways to serve up old prejudices: see, for example, the #Airbnbwhileblack scandal, which saw black users of the home sharing site discriminated against. Mindful of all that, online users are now embracing new tools that offer anonymity in the service of guaranteed fair treatment. Take Interviewing.io, a platform that allows software engineers to conduct technical job interviews. The platform recently launched a new feature that makes the voice of both interviewer and candidate androgynous, to prevent gender discrimination.

But the freedom of expression allowed by anonymity will never stop being enticing, and is also a major driver of this trend. Traditionally, though, there’s been a fatal flaw in online anonymous spaces. Past anonymous social networks — such as 2014’s Whisper and Secret — were brought crashing down by a tsunami of bullying and abuse. Turns out (surprise!) that anonymity takes the lid off the worst aspects of human nature. But now, a solution is on the horizon. Candid is a new social network that uses AI to identify and weed out obnoxious behaviour. Think about that: thanks to AI we could for the first time see an online space that combines the freedom of anonymity with the security of knowing that this is a civilised space. That’s pretty huge.

And one final reason for the resurgence of online anonymity? The filter bubble. We’re all increasingly aware that online we exist inside a bubble that serves us information, news, purchase options and more all according to an algorithmic calculation of our preferences. The filter bubble is pushing a more polarized politics; some say it even helped get Donald Trump elected. Now, rising numbers will want to embrace online anonymity in order to break out of their own bubble and get a look at the internet — news, prices, adverts and more — that others see.

Perhaps, then, going Incognito in 2017 can help restore some sanity in a world that seems ever less sane. That’s got to be a trend worth pursuing.

Read more about Incognito Individuals, and other key trends for 2017, in TrendWatching’s free Trend Briefing: 5 TRENDS FOR 2017.

TrendWatching’s content and tools give business professionals in 180+ countries the actionable foresight and inspiration to create successful trend-driven innovations.

Founder at New World Same Humans | World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Consumption

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