Twitter Drops Its Egg, The Unintended Avatar Of Harassment

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Since 2010, the default avatar on Twitter has been an egg. The idea apparently was that a new user was like a gestating bird, soon to make its first tweet. It was designed to be playful and cute.

But over time, Twitter’s eggs came to symbolize something different: users who remain shadowy on purpose, to harass their fellow tweeters.

Today, Twitter announced that it was doing away with the egg as its default avatar, opting instead for a nondescript person-shape figure. No more bright colors, either — the new avatar is all gray.

How to Run a Rogue Government Twitter Account With an Anonymous Email Address and a Burner Phone

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In response, self-described government workers created a wave of rogue Twitter accounts that share real facts (not to be confused with “alternative facts,” otherwise known as “lies”) about climate change and science. As a rule, the people running these accounts chose to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation — but, depending on how they created and use their accounts, they are not necessarily anonymous to Twitter itself, or to anyone Twitter shares data with.

Q. and A.: Secret’s Founder on the Problems With Anonymity

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Secret, a social messaging start-up that let people post messages anonymously until it shut down, was the talk of the technology world.

The start-up had raised more than $25 million in venture capital and was valued at $100 million in 2014, at less than a year old. For a while, Secret grew like a weed, as people swapped gossip and other tidbits on the service without revealing their identities.

Yet secrecy, it turned out, was not enough to guarantee that the company would remain a hit. The anonymity that Secret afforded let the service be used as a playground for bullies. So 16 months after Secret opened for business, the founders shut down the company and returned the bulk of the money to investors.

David Byttow, one of the founders and the former chief executive of Secret, discussed some of the lessons he learned in building the anonymous social service, how things went wrong and what he plans to do differently as he builds his next company. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Face recognition app taking Russia by storm may bring end to public anonymity

Findface has amassed 500,000 users in the short time since the launch

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If the founders of a new face recognition app get their way, anonymity in public could soon be a thing of the past. FindFace, launched two months ago and currently taking Russia by storm, allows users to photograph people in a crowd and work out their identities, with 70% reliability.

It works by comparing photographs to profile pictures on Vkontakte, a social network popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, with more than 200 million accounts. In future, the designers imagine a world where people walking past you on the street could find your social network profile by sneaking a photograph of you, and shops, advertisers and the police could pick your face out of crowds and track you down via social networks.

… Kabakov says the app could revolutionise dating: “If you see someone you like, you can photograph them, find their identity, and then send them a friend request.” The interaction doesn’t always have to involve the rather creepy opening gambit of clandestine street photography, he added: “It also looks for similar people. So you could just upload a photo of a movie star you like, or your ex, and then find 10 girls who look similar to her and send them messages.”

Some have sounded the alarm about the potentially disturbing implications. Already the app has been used by a St Petersburg photographer to snap and identify people on the city’s metro, as well as by online vigilantes to uncover the social media profiles of female porn actors and harass them.

Snapchat frees sex abuse survivors to talk

SnapChat filters

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Staring into the lens, the survivors have found themselves able to speak candidly, without fear of identification or repercussions.

Yusuf Omar, the mobile editor at the Hindustan Times has been using the filters to disguise the faces of women he interviews, while still allowing facial expressions to be visible.

“Eyes are the window to the soul,” says Yusuf. “And because of the face-mapping technology that Snapchat uses to make these filters work you don’t lose that.

“The dragon filter one of the girls used actually exaggerated them, so you can clearly see her expressions as she speaks.

 

Why outlawing anonymity will not halt online abuse

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Over the past few years a growing number of social networks and online communities — the likes of Facebook and YouTube among them — have introduced, or in some cases have tried to introduce, a real name policy. The notion behind outlawing anonymity is that online harassment will cease. This, it turns out, is a myth, sociologist Katherine Cross tells The Conference in Malmo.

“People believe in the idea that anonymity is central to what motivates harassment, that it is the distinctive feature of the online world that makes it such a toxic place. But anonymity does not cause harassment — it does play a role, but it is much more complicated than most people make it out to be. If we continue down this path of blaming anonymity we will never tackle the causes of online harassment.”

The websites that have attempted to introduce real name policies in order to curb noxious comments have found in reality that it doesn’t work. It has changed the noxious comments, but it has only moved them around — it hasn’t got rid of them entirely. But it is not anonymity that encourages people to harass others, but the lack of accountability — as seen on online communities where people do use real names.

Long Live Secrets on the Internet

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The spilling of personal secrets online, a practice borne of the print tradition of asking for advice, is similarly greater than any individual secret. Before apps like Secret and Whisper, there was Group Hug and PostSecret—the inspiration for which came from early-aughts projects like Found magazine, which publishes scraps of found paper like grocery lists and notes left on windshields, and confessions in public spaces like bathroom graffiti. PostSecret began by asking people to mail their secrets on postcards that would then be scanned and published online. Subject matter runs the gamut from heartbreaking to silly to uplifting to shocking.

… “When other people hear people sharing secrets it allows them not to feel alone,” said Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret. “It allows them to feel almost instant empathy and it gives them courage to face and share.” PostSecret still has a website, but it shut down its app three years ago after only a few months because Warren was concerned about bullying and hackers who made community members feel unsafe, he said.The appeal of telling an anonymous secret is as much the anonymity as it is the catharsis of revealing something. And anonymity has as venerable a history online as advice-seeking had in print. “I see Whisper, Secret and others as part of the same movement as Snapchat and Glimpse,” said Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, in an interview last fall. “When everything is on the record and attributable, we’re all feeling a need to breathe. That might mean being able to have a one-on-one conversation that’s hard to archive, or to have a space where you can truly speak freely.

…”The web is a very powerful place where we can express parts of who we are in ways we just can’t in our everyday social lives, which I think is powerful, liberating, a little bit scary and can be very uncomfortable to people in the short term,” Warren told me. “But in the long term, I think it allows us to work out some of the parts that are hidden within us individually and as a culture. It’s a difficult process. But it’s always healthy to illuminate those parts of us that are otherwise in darkness.”