The Allure of Anonymous Confessional Apps Secret and Whisper

on Wednesday, Feb. 19th

This post was also published on NPR’s All Tech Considered.

“I’m worth 83.7 million dollars and bored out of my mind.”

“My friend who is a banker just told me he’s working on Dropbox’s IPO…oooh.”

“The drug use in Silicon Valley is outrageous. So are the inflated egos. It’s like LA for smart, ugly people.”

Declarations like these — some plaintive, some fueled by professional frustration, and some just plain gossipy — tumble forth anonymously on the new app Secret, and because many of them seem to be coming from within the booming tech industry, the app has built early buzz. But if Secret, designed to maximize sharing and minimize risk, picks up traction, the whistleblower-enabling capability of the app could have implications for a broad range of industries that would prefer their workers be quiet as kept.

Here’s how the app works: the posts are simple images, or monochromatic backgrounds, overlaid with text — the “secrets.” The app connects to your phone’s Contacts list, and allows you to see secrets from others in “your circle” who are primary connections, or a friend of a friend. If a post comes from someone three or more degrees of connection away, it is simply marked by location.

This is a key distinction. On Whisper, another anonymous confessional app, there’s no personalized network integration — the user sees “secrets” from anyone. Thus, it’s low-stakes; scrolling through the mundane posts about family, sex, and personal struggles feels like standing in a shopping mall food court and overhearing TMI all around you.

Secret is tantalizing because it’s pretty much faux pas-less social networking. You can deliver a pointed message — about an inept boss, or a dysfunctional workplace — and get a little rush of passive-aggressive satisfaction, knowing your target audience of acquaintances may receive it. A post’s visibility is boosted as more people advance it by clicking a heart symbol to make it a favorite. The posts are delivered by generic avatars, and Secret’s policies state that the posts are encrypted, so that a user’s ID is decoupled from their content as it wends its way through the servers.

Of course, if you recklessly (or purposely) let on too many identifying details — say, by using a recognizable picture from your phone camera as a background — you could burn yourself, or someone else. And even though rumors posted on Secret aren’t verifiable, they’ve been great marketing for the app. It was only a week old when a post there prompted Evernote’s CEO to address chatter about an acquisition.

When I open Secret, more than half the posts I see have some relationship to the tech industry. But those contacts, for the most part, aren’t on my iPhone. So why am I seeing so many posts that look like they come from my sources? For one, content that Secret curates from the wider pool of users can also make its way into your feed. Given the buzz it’s received for being a tech rumor mill, it would make sense that the company would feature more of those posts. When I asked about the apparent high volume of tech-affiliated users, Secret’s CEO and cofounder David Byttow told me that they’re not giving out any numbers, but “there is definitely a very dense network within Silicon Valley and other parts of the US (e.g., New York),” that are tech hotspots.

And though right now we may be witnessing the use of the app by early adopters, Secret may have hit on an important theme in social networking culture of the moment, said investor Josh Elman at Greylock Partners.

“With social media, we have gotten to a place where everything we say goes to all our friends associated with our faces. This means…a lot of people feel pressure to perform or look awesome all the time. It doesn’t always feel real.”

New platforms like Secret and Whisper are enabling people to get real, and express things in the open that they otherwise couldn’t. And while there are fears that could encourage bullying, it also could be good for consumers. Imagine, for instance, if employees of the Rancho Feeding Corporation could have used Secret to hint that more than eight million pounds of improperly processed meat from diseased cows would be flooding the marketplace.

As we watch the uses of these apps evolve, Elman said it’s possible they will free people to share their true feelings in service of real and substantive change.

“Some abuse this,” he said, “but as long as most don’t — and hopefully the companies get even better at stopping the abuse — these can become really important places of expression.”

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