NEW YORK -- At a time when Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are pushing people to put forward their most polished, put-together selves, a new class of mobile applications aims for a bit more honesty.
Among the latest is Secret, created by two former Google engineers who were looking for a way to let people deliver genuine feedback to co-workers. With the app, friends and friends of friends can share their deepest and darkest thoughts, along with gossip, criticism and even plans to propose marriage, under a cloak of near-anonymity.
“This idea that you have to craft this perfect image online,” says Secret’s 30-year-old co-founder Chrys Bader-Wechseler. “That’s stressful. We want to remove that stress.”
Secret joins a handful of apps such as Confide, Whisper and Yik Yak that have become popular – and in some cases, notorious – in recent months, by offering users a way to communicate while cloaking their identities.
What happens when people are free to say what they want without a name and profile photo attached? It’s an experiment in human nature that harkens back to the early days of the Web, when faceless masses with made-up nicknames ruled chat rooms and online message boards.
In the past decade, anonymity has been fading. As Facebook soared to dominate online social networks, the trend shifted toward profiles, real names and the melding of online and offline identities. But as people’s online social circles grew from friends to parents, grandparents, in-laws, colleagues and bosses, many became increasingly reluctant to share as openly as they once did.
“People go on Facebook and say they just got engaged. But what you don’t see is `I am going to propose today,’” says Secret co-founder and CEO David Byttow, 32.
Launched in 2012, Whisper is especially popular with teenagers and 20-somethings, with the bulk of its users under 24. Yik Yak, released late last year, made headlines recently when a California high school went into lockdown after someone used the app to post an anonymous bomb threat.
Although anonymity apps are being criticized as platforms for bullying, supporters say they can be tools for preventing mischief. They also have a cathartic value for some users.
“My baby boy passed away recently. I saw his picture today and cried. I cried because I love him and miss him. I’m a guy, so no one thinks to talk to me,” read a recent post on Secret.
Another recent Secret message read: “Fact: It’s downright scary to hire your first woman onto an all-male team.”
On Secret, users are told when a friend has posted a secret – they just don’t know which friend. Whisper does not tell users how, or if, they are connected to a person posting.
Whisper CEO Michael Heyward, 26, says the company’s app does not allow people to “use anonymity to hurt anyone else.”
Users, for instance, can’t put proper names into posts unless the names belong to public figures. Whisper also employs 120 human moderators to comb through posts in real time.
On Monday, the company announced a partnership with media site BuzzFeed, in which BuzzFeed writers will use content posted on Whisper as source material for articles. The deal, reported in the New York Times, does not have a financial component.
Secret, meanwhile, has been especially popular in Silicon Valley and its satellite technology communities outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. Startup gossip – from personal attacks on company founders and venture capitalists to acquisition rumors that turned out to be false – has been a mainstay of Secret since its launch.
To sign up, users can provide their mobile phone number, email address or both. When you post a secret, your phone and email contacts who are also on Secret will be able to see it. If they tap a heart icon indicating they “love” your secret, then their friends will be able to see it, too. You won’t know which of your friends is on Secret.
Secret says it ensures security by encrypting posts and without uploading contact information to its servers. The app also offers a panic button of sorts, called “unlink my posts.”
Katy Nelson, an early user of the app, says she finds herself commenting on posts more than sharing secrets herself. This is especially true “when I see secrets where people are being really vulnerable, asking for advice about a relationship, substance abuse,” she says.
Online anonymity is often synonymous with bullying, harassment and nasty comments. That’s why sites from YouTube to the magazine Popular Science and Huffington Post, as well as some mainstream newspapers, have moved away from anonymity in recent months.
The makers of the new apps say they’re different, filling a need for honesty that’s only possible when identity is stripped away.
But Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes there’s a “significant degree to which people want to be associated with their words” and get comments, likes and acknowledgements for them.
“I don’t want to dismiss the optimistic view that the makers of these apps have,” he says. “But I don’t have that much evidence yet that these apps are appealing for a better nature.”