Facebook has allowed over 1 billion people to be their most narcissistic selves online. But with a growing segment of its users seeking anonymous venues to express their true selves freely, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has succumbed to market pressures, saying last month that Facebook will be developing apps allowing users to sign in anonymously.
But can users trust that Facebook will uphold their anonymity?
Facebook, which just turned 10 years old, has become a cultural phenomenon on the backs of the millennials who spent their collective age of consent indiscriminately uploading photos. Ironically, these are the very people who have grown the weariest of their ever-persistent online identities.
Separate studies have shown that narcissism levels among millennials are higher than previous generations, and that across generations there is a high correlation between Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores and Facebook usage.
Presenting one's best self on Facebook is a form of narcissism driven by the true narcissists; they set the benchmark for social-media success that the rest of us feel compelled to emulate.
Many Facebook users have come to realize that evidence of their online self-importance is recorded for what seems like an eternity, haunting them when college admissions officers, HR coordinators and new love interests do background checks. And Edward Snowden's leaked documents showed the world that the NSA treats anyone who uses the internet or texts a friend as a secret exhibitionist.
So millennials are steadily migrating to new playgrounds like Snapchat, where they can post photos that disappear, and Whisper.sh, where they can post their deepest secrets anonymously.
A growing list of technology startups is seizing the opportunity to satisfy people's craving for anonymity. A Whisper-like app called Secret allows users to share private thoughts with friends, for example, and the forthcoming Blackphone encrypts voice, video and text communication.
Despite the evidence of an anonymity movement, however, people still are willing to exchange their personal data for the unparalleled level of convenience that the internet affords modern life. It seems we don't mind giving up some privacy, or even acting like complete narcissists, if it means getting a good deal on some product we desire.
Facebook's anonymous sign-in product initiatives could actually provide users with the best of both worlds. Technologically, it's possible that a certain portion of Facebook user data could be associated with an anonymous ID, allowing a modicum of anonymous personalization.
But even with all of your data cross-referenced with the likes of your friends driving the personal relevance of a Facebook ad, your likelihood of clicking the ad is less than 1%. Bringing along personalization at a modicum of 1% may note be worth it for Facebook.
The biggest question remains whether Facebook users who have migrated to anonymous, ephemeral, private and secret apps will trust this new promise of anonymity from the man who once proclaimed that using an online pseudonym "is an example of a lack of integrity."
The answer may lie in the failure of Poke, Facebook's limp response to Snapchat's $3 billion knock-back of its acquisition offer. Its failure is not so surprising given that, up until 2012, Facebook kept photos on its servers that users had deleted. And good luck getting an embarrassing photo taken down from someone else's album without that person's permission. These burdens are exactly what Snapchat alleviates.
Mr. Zuckerberg's love for persistent online identities may be a good remedy for "catfishing." but people weary of its many burdens may have a hard time trusting the true extent of his change of heart.