There was a time before Facebook when social networking on the Internet was about making anonymous connections with people you'd never met before rather than a way to keep an eye on the people you already know. Some of my closest friends today began as anonymous online acquaintances ten years ago -- people who I shared a common experience with and didn't exchange personal information with until I was good and ready. With some of the newer breed of social networks, such as Facebook, which requires that you use your real name, that sort of anonymity is impossible.
The Experience Project (EP), which launched a public beta about a year ago, is built specifically around the concept of remaining anonymous while socializing. The site has grown to 250,000 members, almost 60% of those added in the past three months, and is backed by an impressive line up of angel investors including Ron Conway, Kathryn Gould, and Steve Blank.
According to EP, by emphasizing and encouraging anonymous interaction, the site allows people to open up more than they do on other social networking sites. One member gushes, "this is the most real representation of myself anywhere -- friends, family or online. I've never felt so accepted nor had more fun anywhere online."
Users create profiles on EP based around experiences, which are immediately transformed into groups where other members experiencing the same thing can share stories and feelings about that issue. These can range from the serious, such as medical conditions, battles with addiction, or marital problems, to the whimsical, such as being in love, or having seen the latest episode of Dancing With the Stars. You can also form groups around goals, such as the desire to lose weight.
EP supports all the other basic social networking features we've come to expect from this type of site: friending, private messaging, blogs, moods (status), activity streams, virtual gifts, message walls, and a few that are less common like a dream journal and confessions page. But all of this is surrounded by a site that has taken great pains to keep everything anonymous (should the user desire). EP can even blur pictures you upload to the site to make sure no one deciphers you secret identity, and unlike many social networks, deleting your account from the Experience Project is a painless process that can be done from the account settings page.
Where EP really shows potential, though, is not in the whimsical stuff, like talking about Halloween costumes (though that sort of thing has a place and helps keep users entertained), but rather in the site's ability to set up virtual, anonymous support groups for a range of serious issues. The I Experienced Racism group, for example, has 136 people talking about racism, sharing stories, and discussing how to deal with it. This is powerful stuff and I suspect that the promise of anonymity makes a lot of people feel more comfortable about opening up regarding these serious and potentially sensitive issues.
In the end, EP won't replace the socializing you do on sites like MySpace or Facebook, but it might be a good alternative for people who want or need to discuss issues that they don't want broadcast to all their friends. Or it might be a fun way to meet people who genuinely share the same interests as you in a safe and anonymous environment.