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With New Anonymous Social App Secret, the Merit Is in the Message


Garry Tan

What if you could share anything you wanted to, with little worry of repercussion?

Maybe you’d talk about a fear you have, or some terrible wrong you’ve done someone. Or perhaps you’d admit to some infidelity that’s been eating away at you for ages.

These are all things I’ve seen while testing Secret, a new iPhone app that aims to bring a sense of anonymity to sharing within a network of friends.

The brainchild of former Square and Google employees David Byttow and Chrys Bader, Secret’s concept looks fairly simple at first: Based on the contacts in your mobile phonebook, you’re plugged into a network without establishing an identity or even a static username up front, and asked to share any and everything to that network. While initially you’re only communicating with friends, those secrets slowly trickle out to others depending on whether or not your friends have interacted with your posts.

It’s centered around the vertical feed (like today’s most popular social apps), where posts are composed primarily of text with a photo or pre-loaded texture background. Everything is intentionally kept simple — the content of the secret is what’s pushed to the forefront.

The grand idea behind this: Once partially divorced from identity, we’re able to be more open with sharing whatever things we want to share. Though since you’re still connected to your network of contacts, ideally you’re less inhibited to tell your friends and acquaintances what you really think.

In theory, that sort of thinking is similar to a platform like Twitter, where tweets and ideas flow ceaselessly and anonymous usernames are possible. (It’s also very close to Whisper, though constrained to your network of contacts rather than open to all.) But Byttow and Bader maintain that Secret is free from some of Twitter’s social hierarchies. Whether a secret gets lots of comments, “hearts” and attention doesn’t depend on who the sharer is, but rather the content of the message itself.

“Basically, every secret should stand on the merit of its own idea,” Byttow said in an interview. “It would be nice, for once, to have a normalizing platform.”

Identity, as co-founder Bader puts it, is teased out through the content itself. Each secret has a comment thread attached, with individual users assigned randomized avatars that stay consistent within that particular thread. So in a sense, you’ve got a temporary handle, but are defined by the responses you’ve given inside the thread.

“A slight layer of anonymity is simply a tool to draw out this expression, while an emphasis on strong connections (via the address book) makes such expressions more valuable to both senders and receivers,” said MG Siegler, general partner at Google Ventures, which is investing in Secret. (Kleiner Perkins also contributed to Secret’s $1.3 million seed round.)

While all of this sounds promising, Secret’s main attraction could also be its biggest pain point.

In the few weeks I’ve spent with the app, I’ve seen racy sexual admissions, expletives, trolls and some infighting in the comment threads. And that’s just in a small test group of people. Who knows what will happen when the app opens widely.

Byttow and Bader expected as much, and said they’ve planned for it. They’ve taken a philosophy of community policing, where users can flag problematic posts or block the truly unpleasant. Also, since each user is essentially a part of a small community linked by their mobile contacts, the two think it’s likely that your friends will be more accepting of the type of stuff you’re sharing — even if it’s all a bunch of sex talk.

Secret rolls out in Apple’s App Store beginning today, initially available to U.S. users only.

This article originally appeared on

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