A whisper, even the sound of the word, is somewhat whimsical. In a lowered tone, a voice says something softly, briefly. You can see this happening: One person tells another a certain little something, leaning in close, perhaps mouth-to-ear.
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Mobile app startup Whisper was created with that intent, to recreate that feeling of sharing — being more connective and intimate about it. To allow people to tell things anonymously. Like the art project and site PostSecret, which launched in 2005 and gained and an international following for allowing people to mail in their deepest secrets, anonymously, on one-sided postcards — Whisper is after the secret-telling market.
It takes up that same vibe — it’s picturesque and allows a user to anonymously write something they wouldn’t necessarily want attached to their name.
CEO Michael Heyward said the idea behind his startup was about a generation being aware of their digital footprint.
“In the first of the iteration of the Internet, Web 1.0 was anonymous by default because it didn’t have a social layer. And there could be negative trolling that went along with that. Did you know who was on the other side of that chat room? We didn’t know who was on the other side.”
“So then there was this huge push for everything to be revealed — as with Facebook, for example.”
“With Whisper, we wanted to create a place that was anonymous, but built around compassion and empathy, showing that we are more similar than we are different,” he said. “You will not be bullied. You will be accepted. We want people to feel safe here.”
A few examples of items anonymously shared on Whisper: people revealing insecurities in relationships, mothers revealing thoughts about their kids, life’s big questions. He says they see stories that aren’t being told anywhere else.
There have been some surprises in themes of what has been shared through the app. For example, Heyward cited, the number of soldiers in Afghanistan on Whisper — around 10,000 — and feelings they share about their experiences at war.
Heyward said, “They post things like: This is my third tour here. I don’t sleep. I hope I don’t make it home.”
“Many U.S. war vets commit suicide. The statistics are really high. Why is this not being talked about? We don’t talk about these things.”
As for the startup’s content strategy into 2014, Whisper recently hired Neetzan Zimmerman from Gawker.
Zimmerman became well-known at Gawker for generating Internet traffic, unique page views, and viral content. In his new role, Zimmerman will serve as head of content for the Whisper.
“I read about him in the Wall Street Journal, and I felt like he was the guy we had to have on our team. He understands virality and how to package things in a way. And we want to tell more of these stories,” Heyward said.
Part of the content strategy for Whisper will be to share some of the themes they are seeing on the mobile app. Rather than exposing a single person’s story, they aim to showcase some of the more serious overall themes they are seeing. (As with the soldiers at war example he gave).
“We want to be doing some good for the world,” he said.
The startup received $3 million in Series A funding in April 2013, and in September 2013 raised $21 million in Series B funding, led by Sequoia Capital.
So what does ephemeral and secret-sharing media say about where social media is at present? Or where society on the Internet is at present?
According to Heyward, millennials especially (but other demographics, too) very much recognize that what they share online can affect various parts of their lives.
“It’s like we’re all celebrities now of some sort, all living under this spotlight,” he said.
“Everything on Facebook and LinkedIn is attached to your personnel file. These are high stakes. The removal of personal identity from a social media platform provides a different kind of space, resulting in a higher level of authenticity.”
In a world where privacy has become top of mind for many, especially due to NSA privacy breaches and the national idea of spying happening even on people’s personal lives — anonymous interactions have become appealing to some.
Like a societal backlash to being completely public.
Heyward’s great hope is that the connective nature of his mobile social network actually makes people more compassionate toward one another.
“It’s most important that we use technology to make people feel more connected, not less. What happens when you tell something to a stranger that you don’t tell anyone else — it’s the foundation for intimacy.”
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