The real secret: Speaking anonymously often ends badly

03/03/2014 12:00 AM

03/02/2014 9:50 AM

Ever want to howl into the void and be heard by people you know but without them knowing it was you?

It hadn’t occurred to me either.

But apparently it has to a lot of other people. And, as you might imagine, there’s an app for that – several, actually.

The latest in this crop is Secret, which was released in late January.

The product of a company called Secret.ly, which was started by two former Googlers and backed by Google Ventures, its iOS app lets people essentially tweet anonymously to their contacts. Think of it as the digital equivalent of a masquerade ball, where everyone kind of knows who is invited but no one knows who’s behind a particular mask.

Secret has already given rise to false speculation that a tech company, Evernote, was about to be sold. The company executives took to Twitter to deny the story. Secret also has become a place for the trashing of local CEOs and journalists.

And notably, in its short life, it quickly became one of the most popular downloaded programs at the Apple App store, according to App Annie. The tech blogosphere has taken to reviewing and attacking the app. Valleywag, the tech gossip site, described Secret as “part therapy, part confession, part defamation, and it’s a lot of fun to eavesdrop.”

I downloaded Secret to test it out.

Secret asks for things near and dear to my true identity – my e-mail and phone number. It then says it is going to access my contacts to see who else is on the service. When I post something, my circle of contacts can see it. If enough people “love” what I say with a heart symbol, it can travel to their circle and onward to the entire Secret network.

But my contacts don’t seem to be using Secret yet. So I checked out the messages that have received a lot of “love,” which included sentiments like this from someone in California: “I secretly paint but don’t have the confidence to show anyone.” Another from North Carolina says, “I wish I had a real life Pikachu.”

Not riveting stuff. But if more of my contacts signed on, that could be a different story.

Secret’s overnight success and that of others like it signifies a new trend: Our conflicting desires for privacy and self-disclosure are becoming fodder for app makers to come up with new ways to communicate.

It was bound to happen. We want the ease and speed of online communication but we want it without the consequences and the long shelf life of the written word. Secret joins others like Wut, Popcorn and Whisper. There’s Snapchat’s self-destructing photos and the vanishing messages of Telegram and Confide.

Confide’s pitch is that “spoken words disappear after they’re heard. But what you say online remains forever. With confidential messages that self-destruct, Confide takes you off the record.”

People may not be tiring of Facebook and Twitter, where your communication is tied to your identity. But they could be looking for other online mediums that offer different features.

On existing social media sites, as the founders of Secret wrote, “We tend to share only our proudest moments in an attempt to portray our best selves. We filter too much, and with that, lose real human connection.”

Of course, they built Secret to be the solution to the well-tended Facebook garden, for “people to be themselves and share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment.” The founders of the company did not reply to requests for an interview.

But does anonymity foster any real connection, as the founders hope, or does it just add a level of intrigue that may become old? Part of the tension of Secret is that the reader of the message probably knows the sender in the real world. But who the sender is remains a secret. That sense of anonymity among friends gives the messages more credibility than just anonymous rantings on random websites.

Chances are that users will still get hurt by these anonymous communications. The disclosure of private information and harmful comments are two hazards. Already, people who have signed up for Secret are starting to delete the app because of the trash talk.

Secret and others like it “will end the way all anonymous apps end, in pain and sadness,” said Gina Bianchini, chief executive of Mightybell, a social networking firm.

That may be true; Secret might be the wrong solution. But the problem will remain; there’s a new social networking movement that’s all about catering to people’s various ways of wanting to communicate online. And I’m betting someone is going to come up with the right solutions.

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