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Confessional in the Palm of Your Hand

Sure, people say some nasty things in anonymous apps, but the good far outweighs the bad.
October 1, 2014

“I want to quit Google,” the message on my iPhone read. “It’s boring here.”

Posted by an anonymous user in San Francisco to the confessional app Secret, the message quickly gained attention; after four days, it had received 78 comments, ranging from “just means you’re not on the right project” to “I quit Google, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.” At times, the original poster chimed in, saying things like: “I’ve been there a long time. Many jobs. The company no longer values initiative, and promotion is very slow.”

Many of us are addicted to sharing status updates on Facebook, photos on Instagram, and thoughts on Twitter. But real, raw honesty is tricky online. It’s hard to say what you really think when your true identity is attached, especially if your post could get you in trouble, either now or years down the line. That bored Googler on Secret wouldn’t be likely to voice those thoughts online under his or her real name—even if doing so could be therapeutic or even lead to other job options.


Pro: Connects you, anonymously to people within your social network rather than a universe of strangers.

Con: Diversity of posts can be limited, and there’s no way to search by topic.

Sample revelation: “So many white dudes on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt. As a white dude, even I’m offended.”

That’s why anonymous social apps like Whisper and Secret come as a relief. Yes, anonymity and self-disguise have always been available on the Web, from early chat rooms to newspaper and blog comment sections to the darkest corners of 4chan. And yes, commenters have often used that cloak of anonymity to say things that are meaner than anything they’d have the guts to say to someone’s face.

Here, though, the combination of anonymity, the simplicity of a focused app, and the intimacy of a smartphone screen makes sharing your deepest, darkest thoughts and commenting on others’ strangely satisfying. The more I used these apps to confide, the more it felt like having a tiny confessional in the palm of my hand. Occasional trolls be damned, I got hooked on the rush of comments and likes that came with a juicy confession. Even if the people on the other end didn’t really know me, I felt that I could be honest with them and get real sympathy.

Drinking with Strangers

With Whisper, sharing is easy: you type whatever you want and the app suggests a photo based on your message—often one that doesn’t quite match the topic. Other people’s posts show up with several lines of bold text and an image, risking sensory overload. Scrolling through Whisper is like looking at snippets from countless strangers’ diary entries, only here you’re encouraged to respond.

Posts are visible to anyone using the app, and many of the more popular ones are searingly honest. On a recent day, a quick look yielded “I just found out my boyfriend was born a girl”; “My son is officially older than my boyfriend”; and “It makes me sad when I see my two year old pretend to inject meds into her stomach to be like her mommy. Fuck diabetes!” People do respond sympathetically to all kinds of posts—everything from one user’s admission that he or she cries about little things like when there’s no milk left in the fridge to another’s lament about people being unaccepting of homosexuality.

Still, I preferred Secret, which looks simpler and sticks to a smaller social circle. The app has two tabs. One shows secrets from your friends and friends of friends (though you can’t see who these people actually are—the app matches you with your social network by looking at the contacts on your phone and finding those who are using Secret). The other tab displays secrets from people who are nearby and posts that Secret has decided to show you for reasons that aren’t made clear.

You can comment only on the posts made by friends or friends of friends and on certain posts rolling in from those near you. This gives Secret an intimate feel. Rather than displaying usernames, Secret denotes the original poster of any given secret with a crown icon; each commenter gets a random icon ranging from a wine glass to what appears to be either a dollop of soft-serve ice cream or a pile of poop.

One person suffering from depression had finally started seeing a therapist and taking medication. It was warming to see that post elicit encouragement.

With fewer choices, Secret feels more sedate than Whisper, and more manageable. When I first tried the app in February, it was brimming with juicy tech-industry gossip, but that seems to have dropped dramatically. Lately, my Secret feed has been humming with posts about love, sex, work, and relationships, such as “I think I’m too selfish now to be in a relationship since I’ve never been in one and I’m well into my 30s.” The recent addition of a polling feature has resulted in lots of annoying yes-or-no questions. (My network includes many Silicon Valley types, which means I see tech-centric questions like “Would you use a social network launched by Yahoo?”) There are also serious posts—one person suffering from depression said he or she had finally started seeing a therapist and was taking medication. It was warming to see that post elicit a support-group-like response of congratulations and encouragement.


Pro: Posts can be displayed by topic or by the poster’s distance from you, among other choices.

Con: It can feel like a dumping ground for secrets, with bad fonts and stock photos. A lot of posts are soliciting sex.

Sample revelation: “I gave my little brother and his friends non-alcoholic beer last night. Watching them ‘get drunk’ was absolutely hilarious.”

I was feeling so positive about Secret, especially after hearing that some people were using it to organize dinner parties with strangers, that I decided to see if the good vibes engendered by the app could translate to real life. I posted an invitation to anyone in my extended social network to meet me after work at a cocktail bar in San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood. Positive comments poured in, with several folks saying they would attend and others saying they wished they were close enough to pop by.

I arrived at the bar excited to meet my new friends. But after I drank alone for an hour and a half, only one commenter showed up. I wasn’t mad at anyone—I had no idea who to be mad at.

But while anonymity can make people unreliable, it can offer some good surprises. My eventual companion told me her real name was Taleen Alexander. After a rough day, she just felt like having a conversation with someone she didn’t know. It turned out we had a lot in common: we both grew up in the Bay Area and went to the same college (UC Berkeley), where we majored in the same subject (English). Because it wasn’t the kind of thing either of us normally do, and because we’ll probably never see each other again, it felt exhilarating to talk about what was really going on in our lives.

The Icky Underbelly

Keeping these apps fun and useful inevitably means fighting with trolls who make nasty comments and issue personal attacks. I didn’t find this kind of dreck pervasive, but it’s not hard to find, and I can see why parents would be concerned about impressionable teenagers using apps that encourage anonymous interactions. It’s much easier to be a jerk when you never have to reveal your identity.

That said, I don’t think Secret and Whisper should consider it their responsibility to wear kid gloves when dealing with the under-18 crowd, and they do appear to be working to minimize the bad stuff. Secret urges users to “say something kind” when commenting, and it lets you delete ugly comments responding to one of your posts. I also noticed a fair number of reminders sprinkled throughout the app urging me to “help keep the community safe” by flagging posts that don’t adhere to Secret’s rules.

When I tried to publish a post with a picture of the singer Ariana Grande, an alert popped up asking whether I was posting about someone, warning me that “defamatory, offensive, or mean-spirited” posts violate Secret’s terms and may be deleted. The warning needs work, though: I got the same message when I posted a photo of some delicious marcona almonds.

On Whisper, there wasn’t such in-your-face emphasis on keeping mean content off the app, but it was easy to call out jerks: an icon at the top of each post lets you flag or hide the post or report a user for bullying, impersonating someone else, or spamming. Whisper also uses both software and people to weed out inappropriate posts and says it doesn’t let users write posts with people’s real names in them. (I was able to publish one, but it had been deleted by the next morning.)

The efforts appear to be working. Whisper says negative comments and posts make up a “single-digit percentage” of the app’s total, which reflects my experience.

But even seeing an occasional ugly comment slip through seems like a small drawback considering the overwhelming number of sincere, reflective, self–deprecating, confused, commiseration–seeking ones. So much of what we say and do online is preserved permanently, and in life offline we still have to watch what we say at work and even around friends and loved ones. Apps like Whisper and Secret let you blow off steam or share your most private thoughts before (or instead of) sharing them in person. Speaking up in these digital spaces can bring out the trolls, but it’s often followed by compassion from others, and a sense of freedom and relief.

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