A person claiming to work at Evernote spills the beans: The company is about to be sold. An anonymous tipster says Gwyneth Paltrow is cheating on her husband. A Tumblr worker confesses that life under Yahoo’s thumb is the worst.
These confessions could be true or could be false—the Evernote rumor was definitely false—but they’re unverifiable at best. You can find them floating around anonymous apps like Secret, Whisper, and a host of copycats, which let you say whatever you want, no name attached.
The appeal of these apps is undeniable in the Internet’s new age, where your real name is attached to your online identity. You can gossip about your boss on Secret or confess your sins on Whisper and no one would ever know it was you.
But there’s a downside to anonymous social apps, as freeing as they may be—they can become breeding grounds for malicious gossip and bullying.
@jon Not a shred of truth to this, FWIW.— Phil Libin (@plibin) February 6, 2014
Secrets and lies
Anonymous apps like Whisper are the successors of PostSecret, an online art project of sorts where anyone could confess anything on a postcard and mail their submission to PostSecret HQ. The postcards were then scanned and posted on the project’s BlogSpot. The rigorous process of buying a postcard, decorating it to express your secret, then mailing it in encouraged more thoughtful confessions. Some secrets were fluff, but many were heart-wrenching.
The iOS app Whisper is the most like PostSecret in style and purpose: Users can overlay text on top of images and create a poetic visual, much like PostSecret’s postcards. Secret, also on iOS, doesn’t use images, just text, and uses your contact list to show you secrets from friends or friends of friends. If a particularly juicy secret draws a lot of hearts, the app will show it to people who may not know the sender—so there’s an incentive to come up with great-sounding secrets.
PostSecret began as a Web project, but founder Frank Warren launched a $2 iOS app in late 2011 for the PostSecret community to continue submitting anonymous secrets. After three weeks, Warren pulled the app, citing malicious content as the reason—threats serious enough for the FBI to get involved, pornography, bullies, the works. Warren said only a small percentage of the 2 million secrets submitted in the app were problematic, but even that number was too large for his volunteer moderators to handle. Pre-screening the submissions didn’t work, either.
PostSecret had amassed a huge community from the time it started in 2004 til the app’s launch in 2011. The project’s fame may be why the app was immediately deluged by creeps and bullies. But start-ups like Ask.fm and Formspring, which also encouraged anonymity in a Q&A format, have also watched hostility take over—both services saw several user suicides due to bullying.
The new crop of anonymous apps hasn’t had those problems yet, but a few untruths—or outright lies—have circulated, likely because people feel compelled to submit secrets or whispers they know will garner a lot of responses. When a user submitted a tidbit to Secret about Evernote’s “acquisition,” reporters immediately jumped on the news (which turned out to be false). The anonymous tipster who submitted the Gwyneth Paltrow adultery rumor to Whisper was reportedly verified by the app’s editor-in-chief—leading to questions about whether Whisper is truly anonymous and how the company plans to use submissions going forward. The app is currently looking for a news editor, so perhaps journalists will use Whisper as a source in the future. The company reportedly uses a large team of moderators to weed out liars and bullies, which is essential for an app that wants its anonymous users to be potential Deep Throats.
The weeks-old Secret is still figuring out its identity and has only caught on with early adopters and Silicon Valley insiders so far—many of the secrets are about life at a start-up or CEO rumors. The app will have to widen its appeal and get more people on board to avoid becoming a niche app for start-up bros. Secret’s founders reportedly plan to make a splash at next month’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Safe and sound
Anonymous apps are all fun and games until someone’s identity is exposed. That hasn’t happened yet—that we know of—but it’s a constant fear for users—not to mention developers.
For its part, Secret’s founders have taken security very seriously. A bug bounty program that rewards hackers for finding holes has uncovered close to a dozen security issues, and the app has an active Twitter team responding to and resolving even the smallest bugs.
A Friday update added a few more safety features to the app: You can flag inappropriate posts, delete your own secrets and remove others’ secrets from your stream, or unlink yourself from a secret you’ve posted. The unlink function severs the connection between you and something you’ve posted, so no identifying markers are left. The downside: You’re also unable to delete those secrets or comment on them once you’re unlinked.
Other anonymous apps are a little less public, instead focusing on nameless messaging. Wut lets you text your friends, but there’s a catch: They won’t know who’s sending the messages. Each text is only viewable on the lock screen, so you can only view five messages at a time. Confide is couching itself as a sort of Snapchat for business professionals, with a swipe-to-reveal function and encrypted disappearing messages. No screenshots allowed, so you can easily discuss work without getting caught.
One-on-one messages are less likely to get you in trouble if you’re exposed—at least it’s better than being publicly caught in a lie—but in these early days of anonymous social apps, you should probably think twice before you post. On the Internet, secrets don’t usually stay secret very long.
This story, "Whisper a Secret to the whole world with no names attached" was originally published by TechHive.