The Trouble With Secret, Whisper, and Anonymous Social Networks

    by Ginny Soskey

    Date

    February 21, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    secretSharing secrets publicly and anonymously with others is nothing new. People have graffitied bathroom stalls. They've mailed postcards halfway around the world for PostSecret. They've sent unsigned letters to the editors of local publications. It's been simple -- you have a secret, you share it with the world, and no one can trace it back to you.

    Lately, sharing secrets has become a lot less simple. Now, with apps like Secret and Whisper, people can anonymously share their secrets with the world -- and then have anyone comment on, share, or like them publicly. In a world where everything about you is public, these social networks feel like a safe haven for you to be the real you. 

    And people are loving the freedom of it all. Whisper's raised millions of dollars, and Secret's become the must-have app for techies everywhere. It's made us wonder. Is the privacy pendulum swinging the opposite direction so social media will become all about anonymity? 

    To attempt to answer this question, there's only one thing I can do: try the apps out myself. For two weeks, I've immersed myself in the two most popular social networks, Secret and Whisper, to see how they work and get an idea of how they'll impact our lives in the future. Here's what I found.

    Spilling My Secrets

    When I downloaded these two apps, I was blown away at how different they were. Sure, they're both secret-sharing apps, but that's pretty much where the similarities stop. 

    Whisper feels like a sharing app for college students. All secrets are public -- anyone and everyone with the app can see what you publish and even messge you about them. Your name just isn't attached. Each secret has a "memey" feel -- they both have the same white text with black borders on top of an image. It struck me as a place for college students to get attention for super shareable "secrets" rather than a place I'd admit my most personal thoughts. Here's an example of what a Whisper post looks like:

    whisper_example

    Then I tried out Secret. Unlike Whisper, not all of the secrets you publish will be public. When you first publish a secret, it's only shown to your friends on the app. If your friends click the "love" button on your post, it'll be shared with their friends. And if those friends "love' the post, it'll be shared with their friends ... and so on. Your name is never tagged on the post -- only the level of degree you are from the person using it. So if your friends are viewing your secret, it'll tell you that the secret's from your circle of friends. After the secret travels beyond two degrees of friend groups, locations will be added. 

    I was immediately struck by how gorgeous and fluid Secret felt. Secrets either have a color or a photo as the background with light or dark text. Because of the minimal yet colorful design, I felt like I actually could relate to the people using the app -- and it didn't hurt that lots of the posts were from people working in tech. See what I mean?

    secret_post_example

    And full disclosure: I ended up using Secret way more than Whisper because of it.   

    So I started sharing to Secret just to see what it felt like. I'm pretty open with my identity online, so I wanted to see if sharing secrets anonymously would feel any different. I noticed most of my friends were sharing secrets about their work life or overly personal thoughts about their love life, so I decided to take the former route on my first secret. Here's what I shared:

    my_first_secret_post

    It felt so liberating to share something that I wouldn't share in real life, but I still got that same craving for acknowledgment we always get when we share something publicly on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or Pinterest. Someone notice me, even if they don't know that it's me! 

    I waited for acknowledgment. Soon, a like and a comment came in. I felt excited, yet comforted. If this was a real secret, I would feel a little less like a messed up person for admitting it because I had that social validation.

    So I continued to share secrets, trying to test the boundaries of what people would like and what they wouldn't. And in that process, I shared a couple that were complete duds -- seriously, not one person acknowledged them. I felt dejected -- really, not that much different than if someone didn't acknowledge something I posted publicly. 

    What felt different from a public social network wasn't how I felt when people interacted with me -- it was what I was willing to share and comment. I felt freer to be sarcastic, mean, and goofy, all because my name wasn't attached to it.

    And it was awesome ... but also raised quite a few red flags for me. While I enjoyed being anonymous, I could see the dark side of anonymous social networks pretty immediately. 

    Anonymity vs. Transparency: The Trouble With Anonymous Social Networks

    After playing around with Whisper and Secret, I had three big, looming questions. 

    Was it really that "secret?"

    I've pretty much come to accept that nothing on the internet is private or safe. I assume people can always trace back something I do on the internet to me, so I adjust my personal sharing strategy accordingly. I never share overly personal or identifying content, so it was weird to try to accept that both Whisper and Secret would protect my anonymity -- and even weirder to try to get over that personal bias to post something on the networks.

    It turns out that anonymous social networks may be anonymous ... but they're not secret. People can reuse and share secrets you share, pretty much however they like. Mashable had a really great article that dissects the privacy policies of Secret and Whisper -- I'd highly recommend checking it out.

    On top of my concerns about other people finding out about my identity, I was curious about how Secret and Whisper were monetizing these apps. As the saying goes, if you aren't paying for the product, you are the product. I'd be curious to know how anonymous social networks will monetize in the future ... and how my information gets shared or used. 

    Can you trust anything posted there?

    I was lying through my teeth on Secret (all in the name of a good story, of course) ... so who else was? There have already been reports of false news being reported on the social network. For example, someone posted that Evernote was going to be acquired:

    evernote_acquisition

    It wasn't.

    According to Neetzan Zimmerman, Editor in Chief at Whisper and former Senior Editor at Gawker, Whisper is looking to beef up the verification process for certain secrets. 

    "In the case of whispers that contain particular information about people or places in the public eye, there could be reason to suspect that a much larger story lies beneath, in which case we would want to explore further," he says. "For that we are currently in the process of setting up a news unit that will uncover these stories and dig deeper. While the service remains fully anonymous, the social networking aspect provides us with tools to contact individuals directly and seek additional context. We will never get behind a story unless we are confident that it is coming from a reliable, credible source."

    While lies about Candy Crush are pretty harmless, telling false information about other people or companies could have bigger consequences. Without a person's identity behind the post, you can't know whether the secret's real ... or just someone trolling. Verification could help solve this problem for more famous individuals and companies, but the average person would have little recourse if featured on these apps ... which leads me to my next question.

    With no user accountability, will these networks become hotbeds for cyber bullying?

    If these networks are as anonymous as they say they are, they could quickly become dangerous. Users aren't required to make the content they post anonymous -- so people have already started spreading rumors and gossiping about named others. From rumors about Gwyneth Paltrow cheating to a crush confession on a company founder, there have been a decent amount of people using these social networks to confess things about others. 

    And that can get dangerous for the person being gossiped about. If the gossip is good, maybe they can ignore it ... but what if it's bad? What if someone accuses you of something you didn't do? We all saw how anonymous speculation got out of hand during reddit's "investigation" into the Boston Marathon Bombing -- but at least redditors aren't completely anonymous. With a veil of anonymity completely in tact, users on Whisper and Secret could easily destroy the lives of people with a single anonymous rumor that may or may not be true.

    Is Anonymity the Future of Social?

    Only time will tell if these networks will become the standard for social media, but if I had to take a guess, I'd say no. Even though apps like Secret, Whisper, and Snapchat are all moving toward a more ephemeral, private web, I think people will realize that even the most secure social networks are never really that private, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. 

    Does that mean that people won't use them? No. I'm sure there'll be a ton of people who will want to "unwind" from their public social profiles with some good ol' anonymous posting. Heck, I'm sure I'll keep using these apps just to feel like I'm in on the gossip. I just don't think that they'll become the standard for social sharing anytime soon. 

    We'll see. Until then, I'll keep doing what I'm doing -- lurking on private networks, sharing sparingly with my public networks, and getting to the next Candy Crush level in my spare time. 

    Do you use anonymous social sharing apps? How do you think these social networks will affect how we share content online? I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments. 

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    Written by Ginny Soskey

    Ginny is the Section Editor for HubSpot's Marketing Blog, which means she spends most of her days editing and writing, and helping others do the same. Say hey to her on Twitter @gsosk.

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