Facebook is preparing to launch a mobile app that would enable users to interact online anonymously.
For a social networking site that has built a worldwide base of more than 1 billion users on the ideology of connecting people and helping them create their online identity, anonymity might seem like an odd move.
Industry analysts are torn between thinking that such an app could be a great business move for Facebook or one of its creepiest moves yet.
"These days, Facebook appears to be testing anything and everything to improve their service's metrics," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "If not handled well, this could be extremely creepy, particularly because it comes from Facebook, who seems to step on users' privacy with reckless abandon."
The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reported last week that Facebook is weeks away from launching a mobile app that will let users interact without using their real names. That would go against the site's long-standing policy requiring people to idenifty themselves with their actual names.
Without a real identity, Facebook's stated plan to help people plot out their network of friends goes out the window.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
The social network, though, has shown some signs of relaxing its real-name policy. Earlier this month, for instance, it folded under pressure from drag queens who wanted to use their stage names online instead of their legal names.
"Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name," wrote Chris Cox, Facebook's Chief Product Officer, in a blog post on Oct. 1. "The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that's Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that's Lil Miss Hot Mess."
However, Cox also noted that Facebook has set itself apart as a social network and protected its users by mandating that users identify themselves.
"First, it's part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the Internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm," wrote Cox. "Second, it's the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it's both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good."
Yik Yak, for instance, is a social media app that lets users connect anonymously. It became widely used in grade schools and even colleges, but also quickly became an app that enabled students to bully each other.
If Facebook pushes out an anonymous-based app, it's unclear how it would play with Facebook's regular site and app, as well as with Facebook-owned Instagram. Would it be a stand-alone platform or would it allow users to be active anonymously on the other sites?
"If true, this type of app or app feature really makes sense for Facebook and, as with the acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook will benefit from balancing its portfolio of apps to support many different types of online and mobile socialization styles," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "This is about freedom of choice to be who you want to be online, versus having to give your real or given identity. People may want to browse and interact online without being tracked -- that is the heart of the issue."
While some people could use the anonymous app to bully teenagers or even co-workers, it also could be used by people who want to have online conversations about politics, sexuality, religion or health issues.
Since investment bank Piper Jaffray recently released a report showing that teenage users are abandoning Facebook at an accelerating rate, Moorhead noted that allowing anonymity on Facebook or possibly Instagram could be a way to lure some of them back.
Snapchat, a social site that has been siphoning younger users away from Facebook, allows people to send their friends photos or videos that quickly disappear.
"Facebook has been losing kids at a scary pace and I think they believe having an anonymous app will help them hold kids and get them back," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with The Enderle Group. However, he doesn't think this plan would work.
"I think that is the goal, but it is misguided," he said. "I think that, if they want kids back, they have to return to their roots and make this more about making real friends and less about making communications public."