Ahhhh the halcyon days of summer! G&Ts on the dock (make it a large one!), bar-b-ques, and kids with too much time on their hands. Halcyon is actually a Greek term, derived from a bird of legend that calmed the surface of the sea in order to brood her eggs on a floating nest. The halcyon days of lore generally began around the 14th or the 15th each December, and the phrase is a personal favourite, as it conjures up warm fuzzy feelings of the ‘good old days’. For example, remember the halcyon days of online privacy? We’ve written about online privacy in the past, and while it’s difficult to control the amount of information that can be gathered about you while surfing the web, one way to throw a wrench into the data gathering machine is to refrain from using your real name. But what happens when you cloak yourself in anonymity? Does it impact the way you function online? One New York blogger found out the hard way when she used anonymous posts to tar and feather a rather high profile NY personality. She was sued after a game changing court order forced her provider to reveal her identity. Would she have said the same character damaging things if face to face with her victim? Who knows. But chances are she would have thought twice. As social media is all about personal engagement, how ‘personal’ can you really be when you’re functioning as @supergirlXOX? Josh Mackey from Peek You knows a thing or two about social media, and has an interesting take on the etiquette – or lack thereof – of hiding behind the username.

Hi Josh, thanks for chatting with us today. Can you tell our community about yourself for those who don’t know you?

Hi Lindsay, thanks for the offer. Well, I am an Australian living in New York with my Canadian wife and our 7 month old American son. My youth was spent in hospitality management by day and Internet startups by night, and currently I am GM of Product at PeekYou a New York-based search company focused on indexing the public web around people. In my role I have a specific focus on developing social audience measurement solutions for the listening and analytics industry. By leveraging our unique data we are able to deliver deeper audience insights to follower counts, “influence” scores and engagement metrics.

You’ve written in the past about the ‘death of the username’, and I loved your thoughts on it. For everyone else, what does “Death of the Username” mean to you?

I believe that soon a transparent online identity will become the norm, and lurking behind anonymous usernames, the exception. More and more people put a premium on interactions with other people whom they can identify, and who can be held accountable for their online actions. One’s Internet reputation will become almost as valuable as one’s offline reputation. Even today, we’d all rather know who left that comment, wrote that article, sent that email, or is selling this car.

What explains people’s change in behavior when they interact anonymously online?

I think it comes down to a simple lack of accountability. My post referenced the Rebecca Black saga, where so many people seemed to be unable to refrain from publicly ridiculing this 13-year-old girl trying to be a singer-songwriter. If she sang at a school talent show in the ‘real accountable world’ the reaction would be very different. Why? Because of the negative consequences of behaving uncivilly—to one’s reputation and even to one’s standing in the community.

Our theme this month is “Social Media Etiquette” – has the online sensibility changed in the last ten years? Is it perceived as ‘rude’ these days to hide behind an anonymous username? And if so, why?

No, I don’t think being anonymous is “rude”, but the choice is a personal one. Saying that, I believe people are more likely to use proper etiquette and act accordingly online if their offline reputation is at stake. What has changed over the last 10 years is peoples’ concept of online identity; more and more people are starting to realize the positive value that can be driven from having a robust and respected online presence.

There are clearly pros and cons to staying anonymous. Using a username instead of one’s real name is attractive to what type of online user?

There are many reasons people may want to remain anonymous, in the post I covered four:

1) Value privacy above all else

There are legitimate concerns over privacy, I don’t deny it, but ultimately people need to understand that public identity and privacy are two different notions, and that you can declare who you are without violating your own privacy. Simple steps go a long way; steps such as thinking twice before posting personal details, and keeping details off the record like, birthdays, phone numbers, street addresses, medical and financial records, and SSNs. Disseminating this kind of information on the Internet can be disastrous to your privacy. Divulging what your favorite music bands or movies are? Not so much.

2) Seek free speech for political reasons

Free speech is another catch cry on behalf of the anonymous web, and sure, if you live in Iran, and wish to speak out against the government, then you have a case. But if you yearn for “free speech” as nothing more than a cover for bad-mouthing people while not exposing your identity, then you don’t garner much sympathy from me.

3) Wish to live vicariously

Some people need the web to be a fantasy land, a valve of release. I get it, I also understand some people not divulging their real identity on sites like IMVU or Second Life. Doing otherwise would defeat the purpose of such virtual worlds premised on escaping reality. But should we commiserate with someone who wants to live vicariously as a bully on YouTube, or as a jerk on TechCrunch or the WSJ? I think not.

4) Are bad players

Simply put, some people are straight up bad players who are planning to do illegal or immoral things online, which can’t possibly be done without the use of an anonymous username or fake identity. Think “How to Catch a Predator.”

To sum up, do you believe that the web will evolve to be a place where users will expect – maybe even demand – that the people they communicate with be transparent?

Yes, I think in the not-too-distant future, a deep chasm will open throughout the Internet. On one side of it will be a transparent market of people and ideas, where people network and transact with their cards on the table and virtual name tags on. And on the other side will be the black market, so to speak, of shady dealings, casual encounters, cyber bullying, and other unsavory activities, all of which thrive only under the shade of the anonymous username. Unfortunately if you choose to be anonymous, even if you have the best intentions, you’ll be left in the company of the BigDog69’s and hotdude2000’s of the web, untrusted and ignored, like spam.


We would like to send out a hearty thanks to Josh for chatting with us. Hopefully we’ve inspired a bit of critical thinking around online anonymity. What do you think? Is the Internet evolving into an ‘us and them’ place, where some of us are transparent, while the (possibly) more nefarious among us operate under anonymity? Would you follow or friend someone whose real name you didn’t know? What about doing business with them? Have you yourself ever left a comment or posted a criticism under a username, or said things that you might not have said if you were face to face with someone? This is where we ask you to please add your thoughts and comments below!

Note: PeekYou is an official partner to Radian6 via the Insights Platform.