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The rise of anonymous sharing on Yik Yak, Secret

Greg Klee/Globe staff photo illustration

“Start of the month and I’m already wondering how I’m going to pay my bills.”

“He proposed — I had to say no. And it broke my heart to do the right thing.”

Continue reading below

“I have cancer, and this was the easiest place to say it.”

Some thoughts you post to Facebook (“I love cats!”), some you tweet (“Check out this article on cats!”), others you keep locked in your brain vaults because they’d wreak havoc on you or others were they voiced and attached to your name (“I deliberately let my housemate’s cat escape.”).

That is, until now.

The trio of sensitive disclosures above were all recently posted to the anonymous mobile sharing app Secret (and then reposted by Secret for public perusal on its website).

After 10 years of rigorous training on social media, many of us have become our own best marketing departments, putting our best face (or status) forward, constructing an online self busy with living, brimming with confidence, and begging to be liked. Of course, this abridged and polished version of the self leaves a vast amount of our human experience (i.e. content) untapped. Cue the anonymous apps.

For the time being, there’s a big three — Whisper, Yik Yak, and Secret — and taken together they’ve revealed a hunger among a couple million cumulative users for the thrill (and threat) of full disclosure.

Juicy, authorless revelations can be interesting, but the draw of these apps has extended beyond their endless supply of semi-private anxieties. The sheer amount of Silicon Valley job gossip and unfiltered Hollywood juice flooding onto these apps has elevated their profiles in the mainstream (it was a Whisper post that first posited Gwyneth Paltrow’s infidelity to hubby Chris Martin). The often gruesomely personal material people share has even inspired plans from Whisper and the cable channel Fusion to collaborate on broadcast content.

And the money flying at these apps is substantial. Yik Yak has raised $11.5 million. Secret recently received upward of $25 million in venture capital funding and took only nine months to reach a valuation of $10 million. And Whisper is currently valued at $60 million.

But Secret differentiates itself from its competitors in a few ways. While Whisper offers users a built-in messaging service, Secret has no such function (though it has plans to introduce one). Posters and commenters on Secret who wish to connect outside of the app must create ephemeral user names and rendezvous off site through anonymous chat services like Wickr and Anonyfish.

And where the algorithms of Whisper and YikYak focus mainly on proximity, popularity, and the content of your own posts to determine what you’ll read in your feed, Secret’s bread and butter is your very own contacts list — both from your phone and (more recently) your list of Facebook friends, should you opt to connect them.

As such, the anonymity you experience on Secret doesn’t feel entirely anonymous. The issues, gripes, proclamations, and problems you encounter carry an associative proximity — they could be dredged from the depths of nearby strangers, or dragged in from the edges of your own social life. And the kinds of revelations you read (not to mention the comments that can unfold) can upend your understanding of just who your friends (and their friends) really are.

An informal survey of Secret users revealed that while 76 percent had used the app and posted secrets, an equal percentage ended up deleting the app in horror over the nastiness they experienced.

One user said he was viciously blamed in the comments of a Secret post for his HIV-positive status. Another watched his spouse get torn apart by a faceless gang of commenters (who, to maintain continuity in comment threads, are represented by icons like wine glasses, ghosts, and lightning bolts). Others reported growing weary of posters deliberately trolling for controversy, boasting about (likely made-up) sexcapades, or just infusing negativity among friends who couldn’t hold one another accountable. But still there’s something addictive about it. One respondent reported deleting the app five times.

Even though Secret cofounder Chrys Bader-Wechseler played down the amount of abusive posts and comments on Secret at a TechCrunch conference in May — saying “most of them are positive to neutral” — the persisting concerns moved Secret’s other cofounder, David Byttow, to address the matter of abuse in an extended post on Medium, reiterating the service’s commitment to a “safe anonymous community” by ostensibly banning bullying, hate speech, graphic content, private information, and pornography, among other things. Posts flagged by the community are sent to a moderation team for review, and repeat offenders can be banned from the service altogether.

Two days after that post, Fortune’s Dan Primack tested Secret’s anti-bullying system, and it didn’t go so well. Abusive posts about a fictional “Sophie R.” were posted, commented upon, and flagged for removal. But even when posts were (eventually) removed, they were only removed from the flagger’s feed; the abusive content was still out there. Secret cited a “huge spike in growth” in Israel and Brazil (and the surge of Gaza-related posts and Portuguese secrets appearing in my feed attest to this) as a reason for the lag, and said it was scaling up operations to increase moderation.

To battle a scourge of bullying among younger users, Yik Yak founders Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll partially disabled the service for middle- and high-schoolers through a process called geofencing, in which physical locations (in this case, the schools themselves) toggle the functionality of the app. By May, Yik Yak had “fenced off” 85 percent of the nation’s schools. Yik Yak also relies on its community of users to moderate posts: Five down-votes will result in automatic removal of a post.

Despite the negatives, it’s still possible to see the merit in carving out some space online where the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves can see daylight. But the Internet being the Internet, you never know just how anonymous “anonymous” really is. It’s easy to imagine that you’re just one disgruntled administrator away from having your precious cover blown; in which case we might take some advice from one George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about the hazards of human nature:

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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