Whisper and Secret bring back anonymous online identities

New phone apps such as Whisper and Secret revitalize the idea that "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Michael Sloan

Facebook proselytized the idea that the Internet would be a better place if we added in more accountability. Archive everything. Use real names. Have your Facebook profile photo follow you from website to website.

Many followed suit. Amazon and The New York Times give preferential treatment to commenters who publicly identify themselves. Kickstarter and Candy Crush Saga give people the option to sign in through Facebook, rather than create a new profile. And plenty of teenagers have found out the hard way that they shouldn't post anything online that they don't want spread around school the next day.

But now, as Facebook turns 10 years old, some companies are pushing back. Several start-ups have found a big audience by making the online experience ephemeral again.

Silicon Valley's new infatuation is a phone application called Secret. The social networking company wants to "bring more authenticity, self-awareness and empathy to the world." How? In the exact opposite way that Facebook preaches.

Every message on Secret is anonymous. There are no usernames, public profiles, or account images. By disguising the author of each post, Secret hopes to inspire honest, open discussions.

But here's the twist: These anonymous messages come from people you know in real life.

With your permission, Secret scans the contact list on your phone. If any of your friends, family, or acquaintances use Secret, you automatically start following them. As with Facebook, each time you log into Secret, you see a feed of posts from people within your circle. If your friends approve of one of your messages, it gets passed along to their friends, and so on. (If no one on your contact list uses Secret, the app serves up a compilation of the service's most-liked messages.)

"Secret is a place to share what you are thinking and feeling with your friends without needing to worry about judgment," says Chrys Bader, who founded the company with David Byttow, a fellow former Google employee.

Another budding app, Whisper, shares a similar mission statement. People share witticisms or confessions written on top of images. While Secret starts with friends, Whisper creates a community of interested but anonymous strangers. One recent post shows a man in military fatigues holding the hand of a little girl as they walk away from the camera. The overlaid message reads, "my divorce finalizes tomorrow. I will officially be a single father, with full custody of my little one. I'm not sure how I feel." Within two hours, the message had collected more than 100 replies, mostly words of support.

Whisper rings up about 3 billion message-views per month from an audience that's predominantly between the ages of 17 and 28. About 70 percent of them are women, according to Business Insider.

The messaging app Snapchat is popular among teens and young adults because images sent over the network self-destruct. After a short period of time, each photo message disappears into the digital ether, never to be seen again. At least that's the idea. Snapchat has been locked in an arms race with coders to keep its messages ephemeral.

Snapchat's promise of consequence-free messages has attracted 4.6 million users. The company reportedly turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer last year from, of all companies, Facebook.

Many opponents of online anonymity argue that it allows people to sling mud while hiding behind their screen names. This rude or inane speech then sours any meaningful discussion. Whisper tries to combat bad behavior by automatically filtering out posts that contain common trigger words. Its moderators scan these flagged posts and weed out any that they think may lead to bullying or malicious rumors.

Part of the problem with Facebook, according to Mr. Bader, is its success.

"Now that social networking has become universal, we've become increasingly sensitive to what we share on Facebook," he wrote shortly before launching Secret. "Speaking on a stage in front of a mixed audience of family, friends, and acquaintances makes it hard for most of us to be our genuine and authentic selves. As a result, we tend to see people sharing only their proudest moments in an attempt to portray their best selves. We filter too much, and with that, we lose real human connection."

Bader hopes Secret's new approach can address this issue in a sustainable way.

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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