A slew of mobile apps are vying to become the public’s favorite confessional by letting users post their deepest secrets anonymously. Whisper, Secret — which launched a special web feed for gossip coming out of this year’s South by Southwest festival — and the upcoming Rumr are among several applications betting that people want a confidential outlet for revealing their true selves in a digital world where they have to carefully manage their public reputations.
Messages on these apps range from banal chatter to salacious thoughts, with some real doozies popping up once in a while. “I’ve secretly been doing meth for two months now,” said one Whisper user recently. “I’m 17 and I sleep with my baby blanket,” confessed another. “Just dropped some acid babysitting,” one confided to the likely horror of any parents on the app.
There is no easy way to check whether these posts are true. But at least one confidential revelation on Secret was sufficiently wrong enough to be refuted publicly. On February 6, tech entrepreneur Jon Wheatley tweeted an image of a post he found that said, “I work at Evernote and we’re about to get acquired.” The revelation prompted Evernote CEO Phil Libin to tweet back: “Not a shred of truth to this, FWIW [for what it’s worth].”
Nevertheless, investors are biting: Whisper raised $21 million in Series B funding from venture capitalists such as Sequoia Capital last fall following an initial raise of $3 million, according to CrunchBase. Secret raised $1.43 million in December 2013 and launched a month later; two of its backers are Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins, Caufield and Byers. Google also backs Rumr, which has raised $800,000, according to a recent story on technology news site PandoDaily.
Their popularity just goes to show that young people do care about privacy, despite conventional wisdom that the opposite is true, says Kevin Werbach, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. Some people want to be able to speak freely and believe they can only do so safely by staying anonymous, adds Shawndra Hill, a Wharton professor of operations and information management. “They feel it might hurt them professionally or just generally” to make their comments openly, especially since these digital traces “can live on forever,” she notes.
In a company blog, [Whisper's founders] said their mission was to “make the world a more authentic, compassionate, understanding and connected place.”
Werbach also points out that whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelation about global spying activity by the National Security Agency (NSA) “just shows how much we are increasingly tracked.” Snowden spoke this week at the South by Southwest festival and said the NSA was “setting fire to the future of the Internet.” He called on the public to become “firefighters,” or advocates for a less adversarial climate on the Internet. Werbach says such spying on a massive scale has “created a craving for protective solutions.”
But the main reason for the apps’ appeal is that “it is freeing to be [oneself],” Werbach notes. According to Wharton marketing professor Z. John Zhang, while it is a good thing that anonymity lets people feel more comfortable about expressing their true opinions, abuses can occur. “The trouble is, people tend to behave [badly],” he says. Indeed, research shows that people who post anonymously tend to be “meaner and use harsher language,” Hill adds.
But the founders of Whisper, Michael Heyward and Brad Brooks, instead see themselves as creating an environment where people not only can be their real selves but also show compassion. In a company blog, they said their mission was to “make the world a more authentic, compassionate, understanding and connected place” — an ode to Facebook’s oft-stated goal to make the world “more open and connected.” “We felt that the next iteration of the social web would not solely be focused around reputation management,” they wrote. Secret’s founders, David Byttow and Chrys Bader-Wechseler, agree, noting in a blog post that on social media, people “filter too much, and with that, lose real human connection.”
Sequoia Capital partner Roelof Botha thinks Whisper is on to something with its 2.5 billion page views a month. “Whispering is liberating in a way that sharing something publicly — or denying it publicly — can’t be,” he wrote in a company blog. “It feels a lot more authentic than what you can find on any other social network.”
Most Internet users do desire some level of online anonymity. According to a September 2013 survey by the Pew Internet Research Project, 86% of the 1,000 people polled said they had taken steps to hide or remove their footprints on the web, such as deleting a previous post, clearing cookies or encrypting email. The top motive for secrecy: Their accounts had been hacked or otherwise compromised without authorization. The second reason was relationship problems caused by a revealing post.
While the current popularity of these anonymity apps proves that people still care about privacy, these digital confessionals have other problems.
“It’s not clear that long-term [they have] any traction, nor [are they] monetizable,” Werbach says. The mostly young users of these apps are “notoriously fickle” and driven by “fad and word of mouth,” he adds. Even Facebook is facing the possibility that its younger users will jump to the “next hot thing,” he points out.
It also is unclear how the apps are going to make money through advertising if they cannot closely track the identities of the users. Serving targeted ads based on demographics is the bread and butter of many mobile applications. The Secret app makes tracking tougher with a new feature that lets users sever any links to their posts. “Anonymity creates a burden on the monetization strategy,” Werbach notes.
The popularity of these apps also does not mean that people have not been able to confess anonymously on the web before. “It’s not as though before Secret and Whisper there was no way for them to communicate this information,” Werbach says. When people create online accounts using fake names “they are acting anonymously,” notes Hill. “This isn’t really new.”
“Most people are using [anonymous mobile apps] for [talking about] sex, drugs and rock and roll. People who want to reveal gossip are not going to the trouble of installing Tor.” –Kevin Werbach
For instance, an anonymity service called Tor has been around for about a decade. It lets users take circuitous routes on the Internet to hide their footprints, obfuscate traffic trackers such as Google and keep their identities secret. Also, in the early 1990s, a Finnish-based service called “anon.penet.fi” stripped identifications from emails to enable anonymous web conversations. “There have been services that facilitate anonymous communications on the Internet for at least 20 years,” Werbach says.
As for anonymity apps encouraging a spate of illegal activity, Werbach notes that criminals who wish to stay hidden on the web already use other means. While Secret, Whisper and the like add to the repertoire of online tools out there, their simplicity more often appeals to users who want to post something gossipy, salacious or flirtatious. “Most people are using [these apps] for [talking about] sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Werbach says. “People who want to reveal gossip are not going to the trouble of installing Tor.”
But even gossip can be an albatross around the neck of an anonymity app if it leads to cyber-bullying. Last year, British teen Izzy Dix hanged herself after being harassed on- and offline for years by classmates and Internet trolls, according to reports. She is one of several suicides linked to Ask.fm, an anonymity site based in Latvia with 100 million users worldwide. Change.org is circulating a petition to shut it down. Thus far, the petition has attracted more than 9,300 supporters.
The owners of Ask.fm have revised controls on the site, including making it easier to report bullying and setting up a separate informational website for parents. While anonymity apps might put in place similar anti-bullying policies, there still is no guarantee that harassment will be absent. On March 5, Bloomberg reported that a 14-year-old Italian girl seeking emotional support on Ask.fm jumped to her death from the 10th floor of a hotel after being bullied and told by users on the site to “kill yourself.”
“If you take accountability away, you may also lose this sense of responsibility.” –Z. John Zhang
Anonymous apps can create an environment where people feel they have a license to behave recklessly. “If you take accountability away, you may also lose a sense of responsibility,” says Zhang. However, according to Whisper editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmerman, who came to the company from tabloid news site Gawker, apps such as Whisper also can do some good. “We’re talking about whistle-blowing, we’re talking about exposing secrets at corporations, on the government level,” he told Adweek in a January 17 video interview.
What Happens to the Data?
But Zhang thinks the usefulness of anonymity apps to political dissidents is limited. In countries such as China, the government holds users accountable for what they post. If government officials do not like what is being said, they will shut down the site or mobile app. “YouTube is blocked in China, just like Facebook,” Zhang points out. “The Chinese government wants to be able to control the media…. They want to be able to put out a narrative that cannot be disputed by anybody. If you have YouTube, you can see what people are [actually] doing. That’s not going to be tolerated in China.”
For societies with free speech rights, Zhang says there is less incentive for people to hide opposing political views, so the need for anonymity apps is not as acute. “Especially in the U.S., if you want to expose the corruption of government officials, you can easily do it,” he notes. “You’re protected by law. If you want to say something bad about Obama, you can do it. You don’t have to hide your name.” For employees wanting to expose corporate wrongdoing, there are protections as well. “There’s a whistleblower law,” Zhang notes.
Another problem of anonymity apps is that secrecy cannot be absolutely guaranteed. Whisper’s terms of service state that even though it strives to delete messages as soon as they are transmitted, “we cannot guarantee” that they will be “completely” erased, the app warns. As such, any messages are “sent at your own risk.” Moreover, if the young tech firms behind these anonymous apps are acquired, “what happens to the data?” Hill asks. “Even if you kept your name from your activities, that doesn’t mean you can’t be identified.”
Whisper says it collects users’ IP addresses and other information — such as the web browser, operating system and Internet service provider used — to analyze trends as well as “enhance and update” the app, according to the company. Secret, which also collects IP addresses and other data, discloses in its terms of service that it would share information about the user if the government or the courts request it.
With all their shortcomings, anonymity apps will likely appeal mainly to a “niche” audience, Zhang says. And their content will be relegated to what titillates other users. “They’re competing against the TMZs of the world,” Werbach points out. Hill adds that the trend will last only if these apps prove to be useful. “If there’s a reason why people need to act anonymously, it will probably live on,” she says. “If it’s just for fun, it will probably die out.”