“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde, Intentions
At the end of August, the creators of Diaspora announced that they had decided to hand over their baby, an anonymous, open social network — the “anti-Facebook” — to the community. Which is a nice way of saying, “We give up.” The company, launched two years earlier on Kickstarter with a hefty crowd-funded sum of $200,000, ended its run in the red, with a loss of $238.
The failure of Diaspora comes at a time in the Web’s history when our offline selves and online selves are quickly morphing into the same creature. We are what we click. And if you value the option of privacy as a fundamental good for humanity, as I do, Diaspora’s downfall came as a major bummer — not for the sake of the service itself (which had a host of problems), but for the idea that anonymity should survive in the digital era.
The good news is, the perfect anonymous social network already exists, and it has tens of millions of devoted users. I’m talking, of course, about Reddit.
If you’re unfamiliar with Reddit (though I doubt many of you are at this point), here’s a bit about what happens there: Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which focus heavily on the users themselves, Reddit is all about the content. Users submit links, either to outside websites or to “self” posts, which exist within the Reddit system. Each post is “upvoted” or “downvoted” by other users, and the content that gets the most upvotes in the least amount of time rises to the coveted front page. All posts allow comments, and each comment can also be upvoted or downvoted.
Users can subscribe to an unfathomable number of “subreddits,” each of which is a community unto itself, a neighborhood of people linked by a shared interest. Subreddits, while often entirely different from one another, make up the Reddit community as a whole. You can subscribe to as many or as few subreddits as you like. And if you don’t find one you’re looking for, you can make it in a matter of minutes.
Reddit allows users to “friend” one another. It has users profiles where all comments and submitted posts are listed. And it has its own internal messaging system. You can share jokes, pictures from your life, your problems, your triumphs, your innermost desires. Best of all, you can use all of what Reddit has to offer anonymously — no real names, or even email addresses, required.
As David Carr of The New York Times recently wrote, the anonymity of Reddit “has the odd effect of prompting users to be very intimate and remarkably candid.” Agreed. But it is not mere anonymity that makes Reddit work so well. That part is played by “reddiquette,” the site’s informal but highly regarded community guidelines, and the Reddit moderator system (the people who run each subreddit). It is reddiquette and the mods that makes Reddit such a vibrant, useful place. Because of this self-policing, the vitriol that percolates throughout so many other anonymous social networks (I’m looking at you, YouTube) often gets downvoted into oblivion, effectively neutralizing anonymity’s primary pitfalls: viciousness, ignorance, and trolls.
With Reddit in mind, I am struck by how poorly real-name social networks cater to quality conversation. I find that I am neither intimate nor candid on Facebook. The few times I have offered up a slice of my true self, I’ve landed in silly arguments with people from my childhood whom I barely know — which is far worse than silly arguments with people I don’t know at all. I tend to keep much of myself to myself on Facebook. It may be my real name at the top of my Timeline, but it’s not the real me.
That is not to say that the “real me” is anywhere online. But the “me” I am on Reddit — the communities I’m a part of, the conversations I have with others — is closer to the “me” I am offline than anywhere else on the Web. I can say what I want without fear of retribution (save some embarrassing downvotes). And not only can I connect with real friends, I can find new ones I never would have met through a closed system. If this is not the point of an anonymous, open social network, what is?
Despite all this, I highly doubt most redditors would describe the site as a “social network.” In fact, my gut tells me many would take offense at such a label. And for good reason: Reddit is not Facebook nor Twitter nor even Diaspora. It’s something better. Make of it what you will.