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Can Social App Secret Survive the Trolls?

Anonymity has its perks -- and its drawbacks.


Turns out Mark Zuckerberg was right: Sharing can actually be pretty fun.

At least, that has been the case for Secret, the social application that’s all about anonymously sharing, well, secrets with your network of contacts. The idea is, once you take away identity, you’re able to be your authentic self. It’s blown up rather quickly in tech circles, an addictive place to see what’s really on your friends’ minds.

Problem is, deep down inside, some of us are jerks.

It’s a common problem on the Internet — once you take away identity and accountability, it’s far easier to troll other people. Take a look at many comments sections for Web publishers (including, often, this very site).

As a result, much of my Secret stream has been filled with Silicon Valley gossip and trash talk.

First came the rumors. One user who claimed to be an Evernote employee said that Evernote was about to be acquired. Some took it half-seriously (I know Re/code looked into it), but it evoked enough chatter to bring about a public denial from CEO Phil Libin. That kicked off a wave of acquisition secrets that still hasn’t really subsided.

More egregious, though, is the blatant naming and shaming of Silicon Valley personalities. Path creator Dave Morin is a particularly popular target of abuse and insults; other frequent punching bags include Valleywag writer Sam Biddle and former Mashable staffer Ben Parr. (I’ve even seen my name pop up unflatteringly more than a few times. It’s not a great feeling.)

Part of this speaks to the app’s addictive nature. There’s an element of schadenfreude at play, like some private pleasure in watching an angry mob descend on a hit-and-run driver. And after all, these are likely people you know saying these ugly things, a fact that could make it even more difficult to look away.

But that’s also what’s causing at least a few people to leave. I’ve seen a number of secrets from people claiming to quit the network in the past week, and have heard the same from folks I’ve chatted with in person. Many of them were just fed up with the persistent negativity and found it even more disturbing that it often came from people they call “friends” in the real world.

In a tweet, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton put it more succinctly: “With ‘friends’ like these on Secret, who needs enemies.”

A few caveats here: I’m limited to the experience of my network of contacts, and those in the Valley with whom I’ve spoken. It’s tough to tell if this is a big problem for many users across the country.

At launch, Secret co-founders David Byttow and Chrys Bader said they’re relying on a community policing system, where users can flag problem posts or block bad connections. And ideally, they said, your network will contain fewer trolls since it’s composed mostly of your friends and your friends’ friends.

As at least my network has proved thus far, friend or no, not everyone is nice in the dark.

Secret likely has the time to work it out. It’s only been about two weeks since launch, and while buzzy, the app is only slowly climbing the App Stores charts, according to measurement site App Annie. That’s by design, as Byttow and Bader wanted a slightly quiet launch while slowly scaling up and testing what works and what doesn’t.

But maybe, as far as anonymity is concerned, this is what we’re signing up for when we use apps like Secret. It’s an escape from the often self-promotional and congratulatory nature of Twitter or Facebook.

And for that, perhaps taking the ugly with the good is the price of admission.

This article originally appeared on

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