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Austin, Back-Channeled: This Year's Big SXSW Apps Are All Hush-Hush

Keep it on the down low, please.


Six years ago, Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote interview at South By Southwest, the annual music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas, was careening off the rails. And everybody was talking about it.

The crowd took to Twitter, then just a fledgling startup, to publicly blast the journalist and the Facebook chief executive for the awkward interview. From humble beginnings, the popularity of the microblogging service exploded at the festival, transforming it into the festival’s and eventually the world’s unofficial water cooler.

For every “South By” darling like Twitter, there is a Color or a Highlight, both of which failed to take off in the market after hot debuts. Still, the estimated 50,000-plus people at the two-week event have become a fertile testing ground of new apps and behaviors.

As we head into this year’s festival, the Valley chatter about the next hot thing isn’t about broadcasting who you are, what you’re doing, what you like. The real action may be about what’s happening away from the public eye.

Take Secret, one of the buzziest, most addictive apps being installed on iPhones in Silicon Valley circles at the moment. The social app plays on some of our base instincts: With your identity concealed, Secret asks you to share whatever you want with a group of friends and strangers, all connected via your smartphone address book.


Secret is riding a new wave of social apps that rest on a simple premise: When no one knows who you are, you can finally start being yourself.

Think of it as the inverse of services like Facebook, LinkedIn or Foursquare — all of which are services that are predicated on your identity, your location, your activity and your accomplishments. Secret, and apps like it, tap into a type of social interaction we want, but haven’t often acted upon (at least, not digitally). And unlike vintage AOL chatrooms or MySpace, these new apps do not require you to craft a fictional you to be you, especially if you like to do nasty things.

What’s addictive to its users is a tacit permission to indulge in bad behavior. My Secret feed, for instance, has been rife with anonymized tech gossip, snide comments and a host of sexual confessions that would make Robert Scoble blush.

Or take the type of activity that happens on Whisper, another very popular app that combines anonymous sharing with real-world location, and slaps a layer of messaging on top. Many of the posts I’ve seen are little more than real-time booty calls.

The common thread here is an overall lowering of our inhibitions: Once faceless and nameless, we are open to becoming a more genuine version of ourselves, sometimes for the better and often for the worse. Combine that with the two-week bacchanal of South By Southwest, where the next party is just a stone’s throw away, and it looks as though these apps (and a lifetime of bad decisions) could flourish.

For now, I am going to pay attention to the performance of some of Secret’s newer features, which the company plans to launch in time for South By Southwest. Will festival goers tap Whisper for in-person meet-ups (sexual or otherwise)? Will new apps and features like Anonyfish — an encrypted messaging service built specifically for Secret users to contact one another — proliferate?

This much is clear: While I will still be scanning Twitter for chatter about what’s happening onstage, I will be turning to Secret to find out what the audience really thinks.

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