At a time when Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are pushing people to put forward their most polished, put-together selves, a new class of mobile applications aims for a bit more honesty.
Among the latest is Secret, created by two former Google engineers who were looking for a way to let people deliver genuine feedback to co-workers. With the app, friends and friends of friends can share their deepest and darkest thoughts, along with gossip, criticism and even plans to propose marriage, under a cloak of near-anonymity.
“This idea that you have to craft this perfect image online,” says Secret’s 30-year-old co-founder Chrys Bader-Wechseler. “That’s stressful. We want to remove that stress.”
Secret joins a handful of apps such as Confide, Whisper and Yik Yak that have become popular in recent months by offering users a way to communicate while cloaking their identities.
It’s an experiment in human nature that harkens back to the early days of the web, when faceless masses with made-up nicknames ruled chat rooms and online message boards.
In the past decade, anonymity has faded. As Facebook soared, the trend shifted toward genuine profiles. But as people’s online social circles grew from friends and parents to colleagues and bosses, many became reluctant to share as openly.
“People go on Facebook and say they just got engaged. But what you don’t see is ‘I am going to propose today,'” says Secret co-founder and CEO David Byttow, 32.
The apps also have a cathartic value for some users.
“My baby boy passed away recently. I saw his picture today and cried. I cried because I love him and miss him. I’m a guy, so no one thinks to talk to me,” read a recent post on Secret.
On that app, users are told when a friend has posted a secret – they just don’t know which friend. Whisper, meanwhile, does not tell users how, or if, they are connected to a person posting.
“I am a closeted gay guy and the sheer number of hot fraternity guys on campus is a special kind of hell,” read a recent post.
Whisper CEO Michael Heyward, 26, says his app does not allow people to “use anonymity to hurt anyone else.” Users, for instance, can’t put proper names into posts unless the names belong to public figures. Whisper employs 120 human moderators to comb through posts in real time.
“There is no safer space” than Whisper, Heyward says. The company announced a partnership with media site BuzzFeed on Monday, in which BuzzFeed writers will use content posted on Whisper as source material for articles.
Secret, meanwhile, has been especially popular among the Silicon Valley startup community. Personal attacks and acquisition rumours have been a mainstay.
Secret tries to add a layer of accountability to anonymous posts by showing users’ secrets to their friends and allowing only friends, or friends of friends, to comment on each shared post.
To sign up, users can provide their mobile phone number, email address or both. When you post a secret, your phone and email contacts who are also on Secret will be able to see it. If they tap a heart icon indicating they “love” your secret, then their friends will be able to see it too. You won’t know which of your friends is on Secret.
Secret ensures security by encrypting posts and not uploading contact information to its servers. The app also offers a panic button of sorts, called “unlink my posts.” When a user clicks it, any links between them and all previous secrets they have posted are removed.
Online anonymity is often synonymous with bullying, harassment and nasty comments. That’s why sites from YouTube to the magazine Popular Science and Huffington Post have moved away from anonymity in recent months.
But Heyward and Byttow argue that the new apps are different, filling a need for honesty that’s only possible when identity is stripped away.
“Even though we are sharing more online than ever before, I think we have become more guarded,” Heyward says. “It’s like people are living their digital lives in front of a window.
“Identity can feel sort of shackling, But if you remove that, it can lead to intimacy.”
But Steve Jones, a professor of online culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes people want to own their words and revel in the comments, likes and acknowledgments they garner. Anonymity apps, he says, could have a difficult time maintaining a business model because they are exposing themselves to a lot of liability.
“I don’t want to dismiss the optimistic view that the makers of these apps have,” he says. “But I don’t have that much evidence yet that these apps are appealing for a better nature.”