From Gaza to dating, why users are confessing their thoughts on anonymous apps like Secret

July 22

Secrets are not supposed to be told, let alone shared publicly. Still, some people are posting their confessions on the app Secret, created by a Silicon Valley start-up that last week collected $25 million in funding that sums up to a total of $35 million so far.

Now that Europe is dealing with the ‘right to be forgotten,' users seem to be growing more sensitive to the pitfalls of having their personal history permanently posted online. By contrast, the anonymity promised by apps like Secret--and other apps targeting this market like ConfideWhisper and Yik Yak -- can feel like a relief. 

Here's how Secret works: The app lets users share comments with people located nearby and with friends and friends of friends (through an algorithm that tracks phone and Facebook contacts), without revealing the identity of either the person sending the message or the person receiving it.

When the app was first launched in February, critics argued that it would be used for purposes like bullying, sexting or other kinds of inappropriate or hurtful comments. But the creators say that people are instead commenting on a surprising range of issues, including current affairs like Gaza last week, politics, dating, work--even existential confessions and reflections.

“Topics tend to ebb and flow, similar to Twitter,” said David Byttow, co-founder of Secret. “Either there’s a new trend popping up, or there’s a common sentiment shared among communities. It's kind of like Twitter in that we see trends and themes pop-up. But, we see a lot of people asking questions that they wouldn't ask anywhere else like ‘What's your title, gender and salary?’ or ‘How do you know when your relationship is over?,'” he said.

Talking about emotions is indeed one of the most widespread uses of the app, which encourages people to express their feelings out loud, without facing any repercussions for what they say.    

Posts can go viral based on other people’s reactions: if they click the heart button, it means that the message is favored; the more people like it, the better it ranks. The company is also working on adding functions to help users connect better with one another on a one-to-one basis, like Tinder does, by linking people geographically.

Based on the premise that users self-regulate themselves when talking in social media forums, Secret creators expect them to use the app to set their creativity free. “There is a surplus of personal thoughts, feelings and questions we have on a moment-by-moment basis, but are afraid or reluctant to share,” Byttow says. “Secret gives people a safe, well-lit space to talk about what they really think or feel; and for their friends or people in their network to respond.”

The cathartic value that some see in Secret is expressed in multiple ways, with posts talking about frustrations, failures and unresolved issues. A common thread is about letdowns and regrets:

It's as if people are willing to say things they wouldn’t even tell their best friends. But some don’t think this is positive: psychology expert Wade Harman think that apps like this one might make some people become less socially-oriented and keep more to themselves by not taking responsibility for their own words.

“Identity is everything in social media, especially when you are trying to build a presence online,” said social media expert Wade Harman. “From a strictly psychological standpoint, without revealing your identity you can’t build trust, let alone building a community on social. If they can’t find you and know who you are, there is no emotional connection.”

Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, director of Media Psychology Research Center, a non-profit dedicated to media research, said that while there is a risk of hurtful comments posted on Secret, it's somewhat unlikely. “There is the risk of bullying and misinformation. Most bullying, however, is not anonymous because it is about power and reinforcing group affiliation,” she said. In those cases, she recommends removing the app from the phone.

In her opinion, the app can actually offer people some potential healing: “Being able to externalize our feelings of shame, regret, pain and guilt can be psychologically helpful...We are social creatures with an unending interest in other people. Seeing ‘private’ thoughts and feelings is compelling given our need for social connection and community.”

Secret app creators haven’t revealed figures on their user base, but they said it keeps growing. One of the founders, David Byttow, said the company is scaling and expanding internationally; Secret is already becoming popular in Russia, the Netherlands and China, where the start-up recently formed a joint venture with a local company.

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Brian Fung · July 22