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On Facebook and Twitter, I follow a simple rule: post nothing I’d be embarrassed about if my boss saw it. On a new iPhone app called Secret, I’ve kissed that rule goodbye.

Secret is one of latest entrants to the growing field of anonymous social networking apps, which are getting increasingly popular as more of us seek online outlets where we can be honest about anything without fearing the consequences.

A desire for anonymity is nothing new; there have long been places all over the Internet to say what you want, without attaching your thoughts to your identity. But with the arrival of Facebook’s 10th birthday earlier this month, it makes sense that it’s becoming even more coveted online. We’ve been sharing the details of our lives online, under our real names and faces, for a really long time. Some people can be brutally honest in that forum. Most of us, I’d wager, hold back.

That’s where Secret comes in. Like a more established app called Whisper, Secret is free and lets users post an image along with several lines of text. Yet while Whisper posts can be seen, searched for, and commented on by all users, Secret shows you posts from your contacts who are also using the app, and, under certain conditions, secrets from friends of those contacts and beyond. If your contacts tap a heart icon to indicate they love one of your secrets, it’s sent on to their contacts, and continuous “loving” spreads secrets throughout the app’s user group.

While this means you will see secrets from beyond your initial group of contacts, you can only comment on secrets posted by your friends and friends of friends. At no point does Secret let you know who posted or commented on what; the app eschews pseudonyms in favor of simply informing you that a secret comes from a “friend” or a “friend of friend.”

Secret’s selectivity piqued my interest. I’ve used Whisper, and while I enjoyed reading the posts, I didn’t feel much of a connection with other users and wasn’t particularly drawn to sharing my own feelings with a network of millions of strangers.

On Secret, I had a much different reaction. The app, which consists chiefly of a screen that shows all the secrets in your network, quickly became a hotbed of Silicon Valley complaints and rumors, presumably because of the interests and locations of many of my friends and colleagues and the likelihood that many of the early users were typically “early adopters” like myself. There were nasty comments about tech executives, confessions about the difficult realities of startup life, and even some rumors about which startup would be the next big acquisition target (“I work at Evernote and we’re about to get acquired,” someone in my network wrote last week, which the company’s CEO subsequently publicly denied).

There are no usernames, making it impossible to tell if more than one secret comes from the same person unless they say so within the secret or its comment thread, and every time you comment on a secret you get a new icon that remains yours only for that comment thread (the original secret poster is always denoted by an image of a crown). Additionally, secrets aren’t shown in chronological order.

It was so juicy. Though I knew any of these alleged secrets could be completely fake, I wanted to believe they were real, and I was completely hooked by the promise of a look under the tech industry’s covers. I couldn’t wait to see what would next appear in my app’s feed, and guess who among my friends the writer could be.

There was more to it than that, though. Secret also brought me posts that were snarky, stressed out, and wistful. Assuming all posts are true—and of course some aren’t—I learned some very interesting things about my friends: one is in an open relationship, a second is pregnant, and a third believes his or her therapist thinks he or she’s a bad person. I have no idea who these secrets belong to, but it served as a constant reminder about how rarely we truly know what’s going on in other people’s lives.

I, too, found it easier to share fears (and some happy thoughts, too) about work and life within the app’s somewhat closed network. Here, I didn’t know who, exactly, was in the audience, but if some of them were my friends I figured they would probably respond compassionately.

Each time I posted, I received a number of supportive comments and, sometimes, good advice. My most benign secret, for example, which read, “I am compelled by something deep within me to tear the plastic off of electronics,” garnered a link to a Reddit page devoted to this. There were some dumb replies, too, but overall the reactions I received encouraged me to post honestly and frequently about a number of real and imagined fears and insecurities.

With the veil of anonymity, I also felt freer to comment on other people’s posts in a more direct, honest way than I normally would on Facebook or Twitter. On those social networks, I usually stick to making silly comments and statements that aren’t that controversial because I never know who will see what I type, and I would rather have serious discussions via another medium. On Secret, I felt I could say what I really think about things like what women want from a relationship, “manscaping,” and the San Francisco startup scene, hopefully helping or comforting a “friend” or “friend of friend” in the process.

Being anonymous can, of course, work against the app. It’s easy to post mean comments on others’ posts. I didn’t see an overwhelming number of these, but they are there. To protect against the spread of such things, Secret lets the original poster delete or report any comments in a thread, and anyone can report an inappropriate comment. You can also hide or report any secret you see.

Perhaps the fact that you share with your existing contacts will help temper this behavior—at least, that’s what its creators, two former Google employees, are hoping. I hope so, too, for selfish reasons: I want to keep using it to air my innermost secrets.

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Credit: Image by Rachel Metz | MIT Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, Apple, Facebook, mobile, Twitter, smartphone, iOS, social network, iPhone, Secret

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