Nearly four months after founder of the PostSecret blog Frank Warren launched an iPhone app to allow users to anonymously post and peruse secrets on their phones, he has shut the app down. Warren cites the submission of “content that was not just pornographic but also gruesome and at times threatening.”
In a blog post, Warren explains that anonymity on the app made it “very challenging” for volunteers to “remove determined users with malicious intent,” even if they accounted for only 1 percent of the submissions.
Internet trolls, or people who use an online identity for specific abusive purposes, have long stirred up trouble on message boards and discussion groups, but this may be the first time they’ve brought down an iPhone app.
Controlling bullying online has long been a battleground for Web site administrators and, increasingly, for authorities offline. In September, a young man in Britain who targeted Facebook tribute pages to taunt the dead victims and their families was jailed, the Guardian reports.
At the time, the Guardian reported, the chief detective working on the case, James Hahn, of Thames Valley police, called this kind of malicious communication on social networks a “new phenomenon,” but said their investigation showed that “offenders cannot hide behind their computer screens.”
The problem may prove to be more difficult on iPhone apps moderated by volunteers and depending on the submissions of a crowd. The PostSecret app received some 30,000 submissions a day, or more than 2 million in just four months.
At one point, the PostSecret app reached the top-selling spot in the App Store.
Many of its users saw it as a place to safely share secrets about difficult parts of their lives, such as failed relationships or insecurities, or as a place to get healing and make connections.
While Warren tried for months to stem the flow of Internet trolls, he says he realized he needed to shut down the app after users complained not only to him but also to Apple and the FBI.
“I was contacted by law enforcement about bad content on the App. Threats were made against users, moderators and my family... As much as we tried, we were unable to maintain a bully-free environment,” Warren wrote.
For seven years, Warren has encouraged people to send secrets that might be difficult to talk about in a public setting. When he first started the community art project in 2004 that became PostSecret, Warren told people:
You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything — as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.
Since then, PostSecret has expanded to include books, live events, exhibitions and a blog.
As for the app, Warren says it will have to wait until he can design it with “the right architecture and oversight.” In an email to the Washington Post, Warren said that oversight would include granting users more control to enforce community guidelines.
“The reason the PostSecret app failed was because we did not properly empower the 99 percent of users who were directly responsible for all the positive stories that came from the app,” Warren said.