By Matt Baer

May 14, 2020

Building a More Privacy-Centric Web

Have you ever started writing a post on your favorite social network, and then paused before sending it, worried about who might see it? You might think about how a certain friend might react or how it might affect your chances at a job in the future. If you know about how much social networks track you, you might think about which ads you're going to start seeing after making that post. You might worry about how parents, teachers, or your community might see what you wrote — especially if you're discussing something they don't accept.

The apprehension we feel before making a social media post is an important instinct. In the real world, whether speaking to a friend or close group or large room, we're used to having control over who hears our words. We naturally modify it by moving around or changing how we speak in our physical environment. But using the internet today means giving up a lot of that control. We rarely speak over neutral “phone lines” anymore; instead, our voices travel through complex digital services, with ads along the way, and algorithmic filtering at the other end.

Today, we frame these issues in many ways — from a loss “privacy” or “control,” to “data” and how it's collected. Each of these is a large and nuanced topic, but I'm most interested in a very specific aspect of privacy: how crucial it is for creative expression, and how we can make the web a more human place by building more privacy-centric platforms.

First, it's important to remember that apprehension you might've felt before making a post online. That gut feeling is the “chilling effect” we get from being watched. When we're speaking from deeper places within us, we're vulnerable. Whether we’re writing our first piece of poetry or a deeply personal story, early ideas can instantly whither away if we have to worry about something larger at stake, like other people’s perceptions, or our past reputation.

This need to protect ourselves doesn’t change when we go online — it’s even more important as we connect to a global network. That network, the web, has grown into more than a place where we connect with each other. We build projects, start businesses, and over time, we can form our identity there. This makes a nurturing creative environment even more important, so new projects can come to life and new experiences can be shared, without fear of failure or ridicule. One of the best ways to create this environment is by building platforms that put privacy and anonymity first.

Of course, anonymity without basic social counterweights can lend itself to abuse. Privacy liberates indiscriminately, whether it’s new work that benefits and connects people across the world, or antisocial behavior that harms others. So we need a world that respects personal privacy, but we also need shared respect among each other. Digital communities that enable privacy should spend just as much time building a culture that harnesses that privacy toward positive ends.

We spend a lot of effort on this at, a privacy-centric writing platform. Primarily, we get there by giving you anonymity by default, then introducing social friction as you look to reach more people.

At first, you don’t even need to create an account if you want to publish a one-off article, like a long tweet or essay. In this way, you’re anonymous — we haven’t collected any personal data about you, and readers won’t know who wrote the article unless you sign your name.

If you decide to create an account, you can start building a public blog, but you still don’t need to give an email address or other personal information. At this point, you become pseudonymous, and can still express yourself freely, with only your collective posts forming your identity. However, you’re still responsible for promoting your writing. This gives you real privacy if you want it, like for a personal journal, but also keeps abuse on our platform low — the proverbial tree falling in the forest.

Finally, if you want to reach that wide audience on, we introduce higher social expectations. You can choose to share your work publicly in our community space, Read, after a few roadblocks: either human moderation, or upgrading to a paid plan. Free users can submit their work anonymously, which we’ll publish or reject after vetting. Otherwise, users who upgrade can automatically publish to Read, with the explicit agreement that they’ll abide by some basic community guidelines (which we enforce).

With these hurdles, we’ve found that many people self-select on whether or not to join the community, which saves us time and effort on moderation. Combined with a small entry fee and an established culture of respect for each other, we’ve been able to create a warm social space that still puts privacy first.

This has been our approach to building a privacy-centric writing platform — but we're not the only ones doing this. There are services like Glitch that let you create projects without signing up, and have chosen a business model that doesn't cost you your privacy. Open source social platforms like Mastodon, Pixelfed, and our own WriteFreely help you create communities that aren’t built on ads and runaway data collection. We need more of these platforms, and more business models that aren’t built on mass surveillance.

Ultimately, the beauty of the web is that we can all have a part in building it. We can all work to make it a diverse, vibrant city created by its inhabitants, instead of some creepy panopticon invented by a few tech giants. We don't need to wait for a better web to simply emerge from them. We already have the right tools and ideas. With a little effort, we can build the web in our own image, starting with a concern for privacy and the human behind every screen — and starting today.

Try out anonymous publishing on with this Glitch app. Write a letter to a friend, press “Create Message,” and then send them the secret link you get. When they’re finished reading, they can delete the message — all without signing up!