Since the early noughties, the proliferation of social media and the impact it has had in terms of linking our real-world selves with our online presence has caused great concern about the loss of anonymity in the online world. In this blog I will focus my discussions around two topics, firstly Google’s decision, on the release of Google+ last year, to only allow people to use their real names and the second being targeted advertising.

Google sparked huge debate with their move to delete accounts which could not be attributed to real names. For a company whose motto is “don’t be evil” and has a history of being open with its products this move seemed slightly strong-handed and some argued Orwellian, as it seemed to hinder freedom of speech and prevent people from compartmentalising their lives in the online world as they had become accustomed to. Subsequently the company relented under considerable pressure and allowed pseudonyms, but with the caveat that the user had to prove the pseudonym was established elsewhere. The question remains as to why they made this controversial move in the first place as the backlash did not help their public image and existing concerns that they already store too much information about users. I will seek to answer this question as well as positing the argument that we should not be worried but embrace the fact that decreased anonymity, for the vast majority will lead to a better customer experience.

Cynics have argued that Google’s decision over Google+ was a simple financial one, so that the company could generate more money in advertising revenue (which currently comprises 97% of their total revenue), via more targeted adverts. Google however argued that it was to improve customer experience and prevent trolling, spamming and other disruptive behaviour and perhaps they had a point, total anonymity does bring out the worst in people, as any viewer of the comments below a slightly controversial YouTube video will no doubt agree!

Although, I am sure the decision was in some way financially motivated, for a company whose business model has always supported putting the customer first and therefore securing a large audience, allowing for later monetization, I find their arguments for an improved customer experience compelling.

My second discussion builds upon the theme of loss of identity to facilitate targeted advertising and that is the phenomenon of adverts seemingly following users across sites long after they have viewed a good or service. People seem to be worried by this practise and the information gathered to support the technology behind it, as well as the decreased ability to detach their real world self from the online world. Google call this practise “remarketing” and although it might seem worryingly accurate it is powered by a simple tracking cookie which allows web-site owners to show ads to users who have previously visited their website but left before “converting” (completing the desired action on that website). Of course sites do also sell user information to allow for further targeting advertising but this is a separate practise and the kind of information which can be sold is tightly controlled.

Again I would argue that this is a positive move, instead of being served generic adverts, the more targeted advertising means that users are shown adverts for products and services they are actually interested in, improving their online experience.

What is more, it is a moment’s work to prevent websites from tracking your online behaviour, Firefox has a “Do not track” feature and Internet explorer has “tracking protection”. In fact all major browsers allow users to turn off tracking.

There are a number of other practises which people seem uncomfortable with, such as Facebook interfacing with news websites to provide a feed of the differing news articles which friends have viewed, single sign-ons where your password is remembered across multiple sites and platforms and friendship recommendations, now a feature on all major social networks. I would argue that, at worst these practises can prove mildly annoying, especially when inaccurate but at best can improve customer experience by providing a more personalised, collaborative and interactive online experience.

What is your opinion on the loss of anonymity in the online world? Is it a positive movement or do you feel like “Big Brother is watching you”?