Despite its unwavering popularity, Facebook continually finds itself under fire for one thing or another. We've had debate about the social network's real names policy, a raft of people thinking they can rewrite the rules, advertising woes, and constant complaints when changes are made to how timelines operate. But one thing crops up time and time again -- people's desire for privacy.
This may seem rather at odds with use of a social network (there's a clue in the name there), but a new contender thinks it has the answer. Social X describes itself as a social platform where users can set up numerous identities, including an anonymous one. There's one problem -- Facebook credentials are used to sign into Social X, and this is undeniably going to be a massive stumbling block.
Social X was created with the aim of enabling people to freely express themselves and "have honest dialogues without saying too much in their own voices". By default, users are assigned three profiles -- a personal one which pulls in profile picture from Facebook, a professional one which has no image, and an "anonymous" one. Except it's not anonymous is it? Social X is, essentially, an app that runs on top of Facebook. Any data you add to any of your Social X accounts is undeniably, and inextricably linked to your Facebook account.
Your "anonymous" profile cannot be considered such -- at least it is no more anonymous than any other social network. Sure, your name isn't displayed, you can choose any avatar you want, and pick a meaningless name, but you can do that anywhere. Facebook may have a real names policy, but who's to know that your name isn’t Jessica Fletcher instead of Steven Patrick Morrissey?
The point of any social network is to connect with other people, otherwise you might as well climb a mountain and shout at the wind. In the course of discussions, you need to have an idea of who you are dealing with -- is this person who claims to have great medical advice for you really someone you can trust? Even if we accept that Social X offers complete anonymity an online footprint is still built up by anyone participating in a community; it would not be practical for every single message to be completely anonymous, not linked to a user, or there would be no sense of narrative, no flow to a conversation.
Opt to sign up for an account and you'll immediately be met with a Facebook prompt advising you that "Social X will receive the following info: your public profile, friend list and personal description" -- an interesting start to the idea of anonymity.
I asked the CEO of Virtual Artifacts, the company behind Social X, if anonymity was actually possible:
That's not to say that Social X is regarded as a complete solution. Virtual Artifacts recognizes that providing users with three different profiles is potentially problematic:
However, as with all technology, there’s a need to be careful. If a user switches identities in a Social X community, they will reveal a new persona that will be attached to every post they have previously made in that setting.
If anything Social X should be regarded as dangerous. It lures users into a false sense of security about their anonymity whilst at the same time drawing information from another social network eyes suspiciously when it comes to privacy. It could be argued that there is a place for anonymous discussion of certain subjects -- people looking for help and advice with personal problem might well prefer to do so without revealing who they are -- but when there's a risk of accidentally using the wrong profile, this safety net is all but taken away.
Without a doubt, it is the connection with Facebook that will raise the most eyebrows. I asked how this obstacle had been tackled:
Really, this is not good enough. It's snake oil. We're talking about Facebook being used as a basis for a new platform, and this is not a company anyone in their right mind would associate with anonymity. Social X is no more anonymous than any of the tens of thousands of message boards and newsgroups out there. And don’t think that Social X is offering anonymity in the true sense of the word:
You might not be asked to use your real name, to display a verified photo of yourself, or asked for proof of ID, but don’t for one minute think that you can’t be identified.