SXSW 2012 Q&A: Ted Rheingold

Rachel Lovinger   January 25, 2012

South by Southwest 2012 - The Scatter/Gather Interviews

The Breakdown: This week we spoke to Ted Rheingold (@tedr), Founding CEO Dogster, Inc. and GM at Say Media. He talked to us about his upcoming SXSW panel (“On the Internet, Everyone Knows You’re a Dog”), online identity, and what dogs like to do online.

S/G: Having a persistent identity online has shifted the way we interact with each other and with content. What do you think are the most significant changes, and where do  you think this is headed?

Ted: The first  shift I’ve seen is that most people now post real (if not idealized) public  versions of themselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+,  etc. Since all these platforms offer OAuth functionality that make it easy to log in to a multitude of other services, people now often default to using their actual public identity on those other new services because it saves clicks. People are becoming more comfortable with not hiding their identity online.

The second major shift I’ve seen is that it is now much harder to be truly anonymous online. In the past, persistent pseudonyms, multiple personas, private Twitter accounts and the like all allowed for a good bit of personally-unidentifiable posting. But today, if the Internet wants to find out the person behind an online identify it usually does.

Where we are heading will only be a temporary transition – as they all are with identity on the Internet – and will be a combination of the following:

  • Well-manicured  public personas. Subconsciously or not people are marketing themselves online via their Facebook, LinkedIn, public Twitter, Pinterest, TumblrFormspring profiles etc. It’s important to recognize that people are smart enough to refrain from posting things that would embarrass them. People’s online profiles will increasingly become strategically incomplete public personas that represent parts of the person, but definitely not their entire self.
  • Persistent pseudonymous  profiles. Many people are also developing alternate profiles not tied to their public personas, allowing them to speak more freely in certain arenas. This won’t be so they can talk about illegal things (which will undoubtedly still continue) – it’s simply so they don’t have to worry that someone doing a Google search will come across information they may not want shared with the masses. It can be as harmless as not wanting an employer to know you’re interviewing or the world to know your new puppy is having housetraining issues.
  • An increase in truly obfuscated profiles. In this case, the average web user will never be able to figure out the true identity of the poster. (Though caveat emptor, if the Internet wants to find out who it is, it will). These profiles can be created through services like 4chan, HonestlyQuora, Formspring, Tumblr, and Twitter. Like pseudonymity, this trend won’t be a result of people trying to hide dubious acts, it’s simply because people are getting much more adept at having the ability to share what they want with who they want in the voice they want.
  • Trusting of anonymity. Finally, with the rise of pseudonymity and anonymity people will begin to trust the other people using these services almost as much as they trust their family on Facebook. These services will optimize experiences for the most valuable return to each participant and many will find in some cases anonymous is something they can trust more than real names and faces.

S/G: Anonymity has its advantages. What are we at risk of losing with ubiquitous online identities? How can we preserve those benefits while also enabling a more socially connected web?

Ted: I foresee two types of Anonymity rising, each with its own benefits.

There will be the pure anonymity, as experienced today on sites like and 4chan, where zero information is requested to post, or demonstrated by the hacktivist communities that allow for anonymous group activities without central authority. This form of anonymity is the same as it’s ever been – it’s easier to facilitate via the web, but doesn’t offer new benefits aside from mass adoption. It’s important to remember that while these groups will never allow for 100% untraceable actions, many will never be exposed. But like I’ve said before, I believe that if people really want to find out who is behind something posted online, they usually do.

I also anticipate a ‘new’ form of anonymity will continue to gain popularity online. I term this “functional anonymity.” Functional anonymity in the real world is nothing new – it’s how most voting systems work. You can only vote if you’re registered with a name and address, but your vote cannot be traced back to you. Online services such as Quora, Honestly, and several blog comment systems are already showing the value of letting people post anonymously if they have already proven their identity. Functional anonymity will create a whole new communication ecosystem allowing for incredible frankness and openness. I anticipate this new form of anonymous expression will be very interesting and contentious as people come to experience it’s benefits and shortcomings.

S/G: What kind of things do dogs tend to do on the Internet?

Ted: The most popular sites for dogs on the Internet are:

S/G: Who are your other panelists and what do each of them bring to the conversation?

Ted: The goal of our panel is to facilitate a wide-ranging, boundary-pushing, open-ended (hyphen-rich ;) discussion led by the panelists but driven by the audience. All the panelists (Chris Poole, Heather Champ, Rick Webb, Michael Sippey and myself) bring years of first-hand experience in running identity-oriented social software. Flickr, 4Chan, Six Apart, Dogster/Catster, and Barbarian Group have all created community and participatory experiences based upon their own intuition and vision. My goal as moderator is to spring some of the most awkward identity issues from the biggest and small Internet destinations and communication services and see how far back we can unpeel the onion. If the attendees are really engaged and leading a good bit of the conversation I will have done my job properly.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Ted: It’s become almost trite to say at this point, but SXSW is where the most passionate minds of our generation gather to talk, share, learn and scheme with each other. We all take 3-5 days off of working independently to rub minds for as many hours a day as we can stay awake. I love how at this point you can’t even try and catch every panel you want to see – there are just too many good ones. All you can do is spend as much time as possible in the slipstream of activity around the conference center, party venues and ever obliging bars and cafes, talking about as much as you can with everyone there. Also, SAY’s going to be throwing a really great party. [Editor’s note: Check out the line-up from SAY Media’s SXSW 2011 party and keep an eye out for announcements on their blog.]

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2012 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Brian Warren
Badge – by adactio
Microphone – by hiddedevries
Xtranormal – by nan palmero
Texas waffle – by rachel lovinger



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