Escaping your digital past

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2011; 7:36 AM

The web has created a timeless state where the past never recedes. Each person amasses a digital trail, strewn across Web sites, traced by advertising companies and ranked in Google results.

"I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time," former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said last summer in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. In the future, he predicted, people would only be able to escape their digital past by changing their names.

In a world with apps and Web sites asking for everything from your current location to your Social Security number, there is one space that celebrates anonymity: 4chan, an online message board rife with questionable content. Its 23-year-old founder, Christopher Poole, thinks the loss of anonymity online is akin to a collective loss of innocence.

"You can never make mistakes and then let them be buried by the sands of time. They're now crystallized by the sands of Google," said Poole, who just launched Canvas, a photo site where anonymity also rules.

The public may have branded anonymity the bane of civil discourse online, giving people the protection to make scurrilous claims without fear of repercussions. But Poole, who was in Austin last week for the technology portion of South by Southwest, sees it differently: Anonymity, he says, allows people the opportunity to discuss ideas or to create projects without making every false step part of a permanent record.

Anonymity is gaining commercial currency online, as a few new Web sites are recognizing that not everyone, everywhere wants to share everything online.

Offermatic, which offers custom online shopping deals, touts its mission to protect online identity by not even requiring users to sign up with their real names. The more you use the site to make purchases, the better the deals get, but the site claims it will never keep your information or sell it to advertisers.

Swipely, which started in 2010 as a shopping site that shared information about your purchases, changed course 180 degrees to make all purchases private. Instead, it gives rewards to customers for shopping at locally owned businesses, while promising not to share customer information.

Companies have also been affected by the taint of permanence online. Grant Allen, an assistant general manager at the Cedar Door in Austin, said that if you search his restaurant on Yelp, negative reviews from 2009 still show up on the first page.

"We've gotten rid of the people behind those problems. We fixed it, but you guys don't see that," he said.

To combat the negative reviews, Allen's restaurant has started using Skweal, a text-message service that allows customers to send a message anonymously to a business's managers, bypassing the online public.

Maybe a name change won't be necessary after all if you don't rely on your name in the first place.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company