In May 2013, Yahoo! announced that it had bought the immensely popular blogging service Tumblr for 1.1bn USD. I’m an avid Tumblr-er (and another and another) and I couldn’t resist writing a letter to the search/content/web dinosaur explaining why it was important that they let it be.

This was originally published in an amended form as an Email from America (though I was actually in Australia) for The Guardian’s Tech Weekly. Here’s the text, slightly different from the audio recording.

Dear Yahoo!, I understand you’ve bought Tumblr for rather a lot of money. Congratulations to everyone involved. I trust it will be a loving, long-term relationship.

In fact, that’s exactly what I’m writing to you about: trust. Because you’ve not just bought an online blogging service, you’ve bought an identity playground – one of the few places in the mainstream web where people can go and, without fear of being watched or asked for their real identity, or check for their real identities by people in their social networks – can express themselves fully and anonymously, and trust that whatever they put online won’t come back to bite them. Unless they specifically ask.

I know, I know, it seems ridiculous that a place where anonymous millions who post thoughts, photos, videos, quotes and audio, who reblog other anonymous people’s thoughts, photos, videos, quotes and audio, and who like other anonymous people’s thoughts, photos, videos, quotes and audio could be so important, but I want to put it in the context of the the online ecosystem as it stands now.

The web is currently dominated by online places where we have to say exactly who we are. In return, we get incredible services, personalised services, services that give us exactly what we want and need because they know us sometimes better than ourselves. They do this magical feat with smoke and mirrors fed by a single thing: a single identity. Most mainstream social networks, search engines, online shopping arcades want to know exactly who we are offline, and that’s been an important part of the growth of the web: web services that validate who we are and who we’re talking to have lowered the barrier to entry so much so that people who never would have gone online before these services made the web “safe” are now perfectly happy to publish information about themselves and their friends so much so that now countless headlines decry the demise of privacy. Almost imperceptibly, though, our potential to express ourselves anonymously on a mass market, mainstream level was whittled away.

And then Tumblr came along. And Tumblr gave us our anonymity back, for the first time in a long time. And the kids – the ones the headlines are most worried about – flocked there. They boldly decorated their virtual tumblr-walls with unhindered expressions of self-identity. It felt like LiveJournal had risen like the phoenix from the flames again.

Why is this important, Yahoo? Because it’s nice to be able to express oneself freely and openly and not feel like it’s going to come back to bite you.

Allow me to reminisce for a moment in a rosy glow about the way things were.

Back in the first decade of the web, when social scientists like Sherry Turkle, John Bargh and Katelyn McKenna were writing about what people were doing online, there was a lot of buzz about how the communication medium was an important place for people to express different aspects of themselves – things that might otherwise be difficult to talk about with friends or family offline because they might be too out of the ordinary. Some of the people playing in the online world felt buds of identity wings that could take them in new directions, but their offline context wasn’t the place to do it, just like work isn’t the place to wear a rubber chicken suit or the classroom isn’t a place to stand unprompted and sing the Hoochie Coochie.

These urges of the self could appear to the outsider to be totally innocuous, but to the person who couldn’t talk to friends or family about them, they were really important for their psychological feeling of self-worth and self-esteem. And sometimes they were really important for the individual, like if someone was questioning his or her sexuality, or was living with another identity that’s stigmatised offline.

Then, the online world was celebrated as an “identity laboratory”, a place where you could try on a self like a new pair of trousers and see what happened – did it fit? was it uncomfortable? did the people in the online community laugh? or did they think it suited you? And based on that reaction, so the theory goes, you slowly introduced the new aspect of the self into the offline world. And you became a more self-actualised person, for much cheaper than therapy.

So this was kinda the problem with the web: people thought it was populated by the wounded or the incomplete. It’s where people with issues went. Remember? it was where the socially inept disappeared to, because it was the only place they could find their people. It’s not like that anymore, thanks to web services like Facebook which, essentially, is an identity authentication service dolled up in social network clothing. Again, it’s thanks to Facebook that so many new people felt comfortable enough to come online.

But also thanks to systems like this that link our online self with the offline one – and to those that have virtual pachydermal minds – our ability to try on new aspects of self for the purposes of large or small reinvention has slowly eroded.

Why is this important? Well, psychologically speaking reinvention is essential for people across the life spectrum, but mostly for kids who are going through all kinds of chaotic social and personal growths and need to feel that they can press CTL+ALT+DEL on something they’ve put out there in case it doesn’t fit. After all, discarding identities is just as important as putting them on. (Here’s the science bit: Markus & Nurius’ (1986) theory of possible selves [pdf])

Now it’s timely that you, Yahoo!, have announced your relationship with Tumblr, because I’ve only just become aware of Tumblr’s role in all of this psychosocial development stuff. I personally have many tumblogs – some to do with my book projects, others to do with independent projects, and some to do with things that have no relation to who I am in either of those worlds. I naturally gravitated to Tumblr’s simple service and didn’t really think about how it allowed me to shard myself across the web in ways that aren’t associated with an existing online account or a regular email address or anything trackable by a search engine. I’m not hiding anything – far from it – but I trust the system will allow me to play with these little bits of me without consequence, and without selling me to the highest bidder.

I didn’t realise just how important that’s become until I got an email from a high school student from Auckland, NZ. She said she is working on a student documentary about anonymity on the web – particularly how it’s used on websites like Tumblr. Previously, I’d assumed the last bastions of anonymity online were places like 4Chan, where no one needs to know your name and all contributions are totally ephemeral and unarchived.

But you know what? The kids, observed by parents, teachers, and the online arbiters of “authentic” identity have found another place to go, once again asserting the freedom of expression we oldies had in the early days of the web. And now, Yahoo!, you’ve plonked down a pretty penny for it.

And so, I implore you: please let it be. And please, please, really let it be. Don’t track us, trace us, or try to document us. Don’t shut us down.

We are psychologically unbaked. It’s the human condition. We need to be able to operate elsewhere, and the self-expression – and documentation – that the web allows is unprecedented.

We trust the system to lets be who we are. And now, we must trust you to keep that identity playground alive.

Listen to the audio on Tech Weekly from The Guardian.