The post popped up on my Facebook wall at around 8:30 p.m. “You suck, you’re the worst, I’ve never liked you,” it read.
I couldn’t tell who it was. No name, no profile picture, just empty space where a carefully constructed digital identity should have been. Every comment or “like” appeared that way, as did my event invitations and friend list. Blank spaces. Total anonymity. Freedom to terrorize the identity-blind.
Nearly an hour beforehand, I had installed net artist Eric Rieper’s “Eyes Without a Facebook” on my Chrome preferences. As soon as I hit “subscribe,” it wiped my Facebook clean of my friends’ identities with a simple alteration to the Adblock Plus browser extension. Instead of using the tool to block advertisements, Rieper changed the script to target names, portraits, and likes.
It started as a social experiment. Rieper had been thinking about some of the trade-offs of engaging in the network, like the involuntary sale of his data to advertisers. He also considered the degree to which the Internet had tailored itself to individual user experience over the last decade. In one sense, the uploading and selling of identities limits a person’s field of choices online, and perhaps a certain freedom, Rieper argued. It was an echo of the case techno-philosopher Douglas Rushkoff made when he decided to quit Facebook earlier this year.
So what if you simply eliminated online identities instead? Rieper felt that might make interactions online more authentic, with conversations based on actual interest in the content rather than who’s putting it up.
“In order to use an interface with commercial technology, you have to give up part of yourself,” Rieper explains. “I took [on] this thing that’s very much entrenched in giving up your personal identity; that’s the currency we use in order to use this service. But in some ways we could opt out of that in a service that’s stripped of all the data we’ve given it.”
Finally, I got around to installing the thing, and as soon as I did, I felt a rush. In digital terms, I was about as vulnerable as a hermit crab running around without a shell, and it was thrillingly naked and freeing. Suddenly, I wanted to talk to total strangers, get them to tell me their hopes, their fears, and pontificate on life, man, through a bevy of chat windows. But everyone else could see my identifiers clearly. I was the only one living in a faceless Facebook.
This is what happened instead (I’m the one starting the conversation):
Weird. I had notified everyone that I was installing a script that would anonymize them. Bring on the death threats! The love letters! The sick, sad confessions!
The responses to my “Hey! I installed this weird thing so that you’re anonymous!” posts started to get a bit strange. Someone called me “baby.” Another commenter asked for my mom’s contact information. Others played along.
And then, someone, I didn’t know who, told me I sucked. The terrified, wounded 7th-grade version of myself promptly opened up Firefox, which did not have the “Eyes Without a Facebook” extension, to see who it was.
It was my cousin, who told me he was kidding a minute later.
The social experiment was broken. I figured out I could find who was commenting and posting by clicking on their statuses, which would send me to semi-anonymized profile pages. Usually, I could deduce who was who.
Maybe “Eyes Without a Facebook” has value to the Facebook addict looking for the equivalent of a spiritual cleanse. I recommend it–I kept the tool installed for a couple of weeks and was still largely able to enjoy Facebook without the identifiers. Or, perhaps an era of newfound personal data concerns will mean one day we’ll all choose anonymity over stalking ex-girlfriends. (You’re free to try the beta version.) For now, though, and for better or worse, most people will probably find stalking more fun.