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Whispers, secrets and lies? Anonymity apps rise

By Barbara Ortutay

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 24 2014 11:28 p.m. MDT

Secret, meanwhile, has been especially popular in Silicon Valley and its satellite technology communities outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. Startup gossip — from personal attacks on company founders and venture capitalists to acquisition rumors that turned out to be false — has been a mainstay of Secret in the less than two months since its launch.

Secret tries to add a layer of accountability to anonymous posts by showing users' secrets to their friends and allowing only friends, or friends of friends, to comment on each shared post. Bader-Wechseler is quick to point out that the app is not exactly anonymous. Anonymish, maybe.

To sign up, users can provide their mobile phone number, email address or both. When you post a secret, your phone and email contacts who are also on Secret will be able to see it. If they tap a heart icon indicating that they "love" your secret, then their friends will be able to see it too. You won't know which of your friends is on Secret.

Secret says it ensures security by encrypting posts and without uploading contact information to its servers. The app also offers a panic button of sorts, called "unlink my posts." When a user clicks it, any link between them and all previous secrets they have posted is removed.

Katy Nelson, an early user of the app who heard about it from a friend who works at Secret, says she finds herself commenting on posts more than sharing secrets herself. This is especially true "when I see secrets where people are being really vulnerable, asking for advice about a relationship, substance abuse," she says.

"The ease of honesty that anonymity gives you is really cool," says Nelson, who works for a nonprofit group in Washington DC. She acknowledges that such honesty would not be possible on Twitter or Facebook.

"The stakes on a public platform with your name attached are just higher," she says. "It's not safe to be brutally honest, or make yourself really vulnerable."

Online anonymity is often synonymous with bullying, harassment and nasty comments. That's why sites from YouTube to the magazine Popular Science and Huffington Post have moved away from anonymity in recent months. But Heyward and Byttow argue that the new apps are different, filling a need for honesty that's only possible when identity is stripped away.

"Even though we are sharing more online than ever before, I think we have become more guarded," Heyward says. "It's like people are living their digital lives in front of a window. No one is not going to show their best self...Identity can feel sort of shackling, But if you remove that, it can lead to intimacy."

But Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes there's a "significant degree to which people want to be associated with their words," get comments, likes and acknowledgements for them. Anonymity apps, he says, could have a difficult time maintaining a business model because they are exposing themselves to a lot of liability.

"I don't want to dismiss the optimistic view that the makers of these apps have," he says. "But I don't have that much evidence yet that these apps are appealing for a better nature."

Find Barbara Ortutay on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BarbaraOrtutay.

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