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Some Mobile Apps Add Anonymity to Social Networking

Social-networking apps that eschew real names are gaining ground.
February 6, 2014

For just over a decade, Facebook has enforced the idea of an authentic online identity tied to each user of a social network. This might be fine for sharing news of a promotion or new baby with friends, but sometimes you’d probably like to post a status update that won’t go on your permanent record.

This urge might explain why millions of people, many of them under the age of 25, are flocking to a free smartphone app called Whisper, which lets you share thoughts—a few lines of text set against a background image—without adding your real name. Secret, a newer free app for the iPhone that shares posts anonymously through your existing social networks, is based on the same idea.

After years spent filling social networks like Facebook and Twitter with the minutiae of our lives, we’ve left permanent, heavily curated trails of personal data in our wake—over 1.2 billion of them on Facebook alone, judging by its user count. New apps allow us to continue being social without worrying about the repercussions of sharing the most personal confessions.

“Facebook is more like the global social network; it’s like our communication layer to the world,” says Anthony Rotolo, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, who studies social networks. “It’s no longer an outlet to share personal thoughts.”

Whisper cofounder and CEO Michael Heyward believes his app—and apps like the incredibly popular Snapchat, which lets you share self-destructing messages with friends—appeals because it taps into this increasing awareness of your “digital footprint” and the idea that everything you post online can be traced to you. He won’t say exactly how many users Whisper has snagged since launching in 2012—only that there are “millions.” But venture capital firms including Lightspeed Venture Partners have so far plowed $24 million into the startup, which is based in Santa Monica, California.

Users post “whispers” under a name of their choice, setting the text on top of an image taken with a phone’s camera or chosen from within the app. You can respond to others’ “whispers” with your own and privately send direct messages to other users. You can see the latest and most popular whispers, or search for a particular topic by keyword.

In the time I spent using it, I saw everything from “Miss those days when my hardest decision was what Barbie to play with” to “19 years old and I’m about to start the process to adopt my baby brother.”

Some Whispers were funny or silly, but many users do seem to use the app as a forum for raw honesty: there were plenty of posts like “I’m deployed to Afghanistan and nobody in my platoon knows I’m bisexual. I’m afraid it would ruin my ability to lead them” and “I’m a dentist. People who disrespect my front desk staff are going to feel a little more pain than everybody else.” While it’s impossible to tell whether posts are genuine, at least some people are presumably using the app to bare their souls.

Heyward says many people use the app to seek relationships and advice as well as to share secrets. “I think people are really craving more authenticity and really want to feel more connected to people,” he says.

I did notice a number of supportive responses to whispers, and I even offered up some myself. Yet I also spotted a handful that seemed like bullying—in response to a woman who asked whether she was fat, for example. Heyward says this is not the norm, but plenty of online forums and news sites that let users comment anonymously show how easily hiding one’s identity can encourage such behavior.

Secret was created by former Google employees Chrys Bader and David Byttow. It also allows people divulge private thoughts, but in a more controlled way than the open-to-everyone network on Whisper. You type a few lines of text and pick a background color or image; then the “secret” is sent to contacts who are also using the app, without revealing who wrote it. If they tap a little heart icon on the note to indicate that they like it, it will be sent on to their contacts, and so on.

No usernames are attached to Secret posts, and each person who comments on a secret gets an icon that is only theirs for the entirety of that comment thread (the original poster is denoted by an icon of a crown next to comments).

Byttow and Bader hope the absence of usernames and the fact that many users actually know each other in real life—even though they’re all anonymous within the app—can help keep abusive behavior to a minimum.

Many of the posts I saw on Secret centered on the tech industry and San Francisco, probably because that is where much of my social network is based. “What startups are on the verge of going under in the next 3 months?” one user asked (suggested answers included Path and Secret itself). There were confessional secrets too, though, such as one that said, “I read an ex’s Gmail inbox for almost a year after we broke up.”

Beyond the thrill of sharing without the consequences, there’s something addictive about reading shared secrets. With both Secret and Whisper, it was easy to get distracted by the things people were posting and just keep reading, and reading, and reading.

Secret is too new to have gauged its users’ habits extensively, but Whisper generates 3.5 billion page views per month, says Jeremy Liew, a Lightspeed partner who has invested in both Whisper and Snapchat. He adds that users tend to spend half an hour per day in the app on their smartphones. If this desire for anonymous sharing grows, Rotolo expects Facebook, Google, and other large companies to try to get in on it too.

Facebook, at least, may be taking that step soon. In a recent BusinessWeek article, cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that some of the company’s upcoming apps will allow anonymous sign-ins. This would signal a huge change for the company, which pioneered the idea that an authentic online identity should be needed to communicate on and gain access to all kinds of websites.

It may not be so easy to go back on that idea. In late 2012, as Snapchat ballooned in popularity, Facebook released a nearly identical app called Poke. Where is it now? Appropriately enough, it is languishing in app-store anonymity.

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