All Tech Considered
Wed February 19, 2014
The Allure Of Anonymous Confessional Apps 'Secret' And 'Whisper'
Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 9:58 am
"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 whistle-blower-enabling capability of the app could have implications for a broad range of industries that would prefer their workers keep quiet.
Here's how it works: Users post 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 friends of friends. If a post comes from someone three or more degrees of connection away, it is simply marked by location.
One of Secret's predecessors, Whisper, is another anonymous confessional app, but without personalized network integration. The user sees "secrets" from anyone, making it lower 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 arguably more 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 his 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.
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," he said. "This means ... a lot of people feel pressure to perform or look awesome all the time. It doesn't always feel real."
The confessional platforms are enabling people to get real, and express things in the open that they otherwise couldn't. And while there are fears the apps could encourage bullying, these services also could be good for consumers. Imagine, for instance, if employees of the Rancho Feeding Corp. could have used Secret to hint that more than 8 million pounds of improperly processed meat from diseased cows would be flooding the marketplace.
As we watch the uses of these apps evolve, Elman says, they could 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."