Anonymity is becoming something of a blowback in the social media space. Saturated exposure to the web, especially in developed economies, is transforming traditional norms of communications between consumers, leading to greater demand for privacy and anonymity online. Increasingly, experienced Internet users are shunning public profiles and erasing their digital footprints across social media. Although finding a successful revenue model is a challenge for apps and services that promise anonymity, this segment is set to keep sell businesses busy, with existing digital majors paying close to attention to the trend.
The continuing fallout from exposed state-sponsored Internet surveillance programmes is encouraging consumers to second-guess their usage of open-access web services. The admission of end-user metadata collection by several major online giants, including Google and Facebook, is driving more consumers towards niche, encryption-based products such as secretive messaging apps. Mainstream social networks are seeing an outflow of emerging-market teens and young professionals to alternative and anonymous social media, as they look to escape the public gaze of relatives, employers and colleagues. According to trade sources, Facebook has lost 11.0 million young users in the USA since 2011.
Recognising the opportunities of anonymous communications, a number of start-ups have sprung up to service the privacy-minded Internet user. Investors clearly believe they hold a positive future, with privacy smartphone apps Whisper and Secret attracting $20.0 million and $9.0 million in venture capital over the past year, respectively. Encrypted (which essentially means scrambled and therefore untraceable) mobile messaging services have also grabbed attention due to their growing numbers of users. The encrypted Telegram app, for example, added 5.0 new million users in February 2014 alone. Segments such as email, voice, browsers and cloud computing all hold significant opportunities in privacy delivery, as the world’s near 3 billion Internet users look to have the same protection afforded to businesses.
Even the digital majors are beginning to see the crossover potential of consumer-led anonymity. According to industry insiders, Facebook is considering developing its own privacy service, while rumours persist that the social networking giant is planning to buy Secret for $100 million.
Consumers in some countries may find anonymity services especially important. While the privacy trend is largely being driven by trend-conscious developed market users, some emerging markets where freedom of speech is repressed or monitored due to political or religious reasons could especially see strong uptake for encrypted software.
Anonymity can nonetheless provide a challenge for developers. Apps and sites servicing this burgeoning market have to contend with cases of cyberbullying, fake bomb threats and other unsociable behaviour, while there remains the threat of being associated with online underground movements ranging from hackers to criminal organisations. For example, PostSecret was forced to shut down its anonymity smartphone app in early 2012 after being unable to deal with the large number of offensive content. Another obstacle is the disinterest of advertisers in utilising a product they cannot demographically determine, since anonymity does not allow accurate consumer profiling.
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