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Anonymous apps tell the unvarnished truth

I mock my wife’s fondness for celebrity news shows like Access Hollywood. Who cares about the doings of movie stars? But when I pick up my smartphone, it’s her turn to jeer. Lately I’ve been staring at the screen for 15 minutes at a time, reading of the careers and romances and financial woes of total strangers and unidentified friends.

I’m dialed into a different kind of gossip show, served up by Whisper and Secret, two free online services where people reveal everything but their names. Here the conversations are bawdy, tear-stained, hilarious — and incognito. Soldiers gripe about Afghanistan, wives snipe at their husbands, children fret about their aging parents.

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Beneath a curtain of anonymity, millions of Whisper and Secret users boldly say the unsayable, while millions of others look on with astonished, shame-faced delight. The experience may not be altogether noble, but it’s certainly addictive.

Whisper’s been around since 2012, and the company claims more than 3 billion page views per month. The service is utterly anonymous — Whisper itself doesn’t know who’s using it. When you sign up, you get a user name and a four-digit PIN number for identification purposes. Whisper also links the unique digital ID of your phone to your account. But you’re never asked for a name or e-mail address.

To read messages, just launch the app. You will see a smattering of the hundreds of thousands posted every day. “When I was in the army, I used to shoot high to avoid killing anyone,” reads one recent message; “I got drunk before an interview to take the edge off,” reads another. “I got the job.”

Go ahead and contribute your own. Maybe you can admit to playing with Transformers toys at age 35. Whisper will analyze the text for keywords like “toys” and “Transformers.” It uses this data to select a background photo suitable to your message. If you don’t like the choice, you can use a photo of your own.

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The keywords are also indexed, so you can search the service for other messages on the same subject. Also, other Whispers about toys will be routed to you. If you choose, you can activate a feature that reveals your general location; readers will see that your message comes from Boston or Quincy or Newton.

Those who see your message can post their own texts and photos in response; reading these replies is often the high point of a Whisper session. The soldier who dreaded killing an enemy got nearly 300 replies, ranging from “Aww, that’s really sweet,” to “Next time join the Coast Guard.” You can also send private messages directly to your favorite Whisperers. You could even blow your cover and exchange e-mails or phone numbers, if you dare.

Your Whispers could be transmitted to anyone, anywhere. Secret, which launched earlier this year, takes a more intimate approach.

The app scours your phone’s address book looking for other Secret subscribers. These are your new “friends.” When you post a message, only these friends can see it, along with any of their friends who are Secret subscribers. When you read an incoming message, you can only respond if it came from a friend, or one of that friend’s friends, or if the message is from somebody within a few miles.

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You can read Secret messages from all over the world, but you can respond only to friends and locals. And if enough of your friends click a “like” button next to your messages, your words will be shared with other Secret users across the network.

Compared to Whisper, Secret feels more hazardous. I’ve got 91 friends on the service — people who know me and will see what I post. They don’t know it’s me, but if I reveal too much, they might guess. I found myself choosing my revelations with considerable care.

As you might imagine, much of the chat on Secret and Whisper tends toward the vulgar and the voyeuristic. But there is a lot more going on here. Whisper is popular with soldiers, who post about homesickness, lost comrades, and their pride in serving their country. Other users complain about their bosses, seek advice about marital problems, talk smack about their favorite sports teams. It’s like Facebook or Twitter, but with the pungent candor of strangers chatting at an airport bar.

Whisper and Secret have so far avoided the kind of brutal cyberbullying that became routine on a different anonymous app called Yik Yak, which shares messages from users within a 1.5-mile radius. After it became popular with teens looking to hurl abuse and insults, Yik Yak reprogrammed its app so it won’t work within range of middle schools and high schools.

Both Whisper and Secret say that abusive messages will get the senders banned from the services.

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In any case, neither Whisper nor Secret is a proper hangout for kids, so users should think twice about letting Junior use these apps. IPhones have a parental lock built right into the operating system that can deactivate apps not suitable for kids. It’s a bit gnarly to use, but manageable. There’s no such feature included with Android phones, but there are a host of free apps that will see you through.

My daughters are grown, so I’m more concerned about my own well-being. It can’t be healthy to spend much time peering into the souls of strangers. Much as I enjoy Secret and Whisper, I’d probably be better off watching Access Hollywood with my wife.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.