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More Privacy Controls for Anonymous App 'Secret'

Feb 14 2014, 5:16pm CST | by

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More Privacy Controls for Anonymous App 'Secret'

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More Privacy Controls for Anonymous App 'Secret'

One of the hot new technology trends to come out of Silicon Valley recently is anonymous social networking, the act of posting nameless confessionals to strangers on apps like Whisper or Secret, a kind of backlash to the carefully curated things we say on Facebook. Secret is an app that lets you posts anonymous messages to people in your contacts list who also have Secret.  It’s only 15 days old, but has already been getting plenty of press attention and has engineers and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley hooked.

Founder David Byttow, pictured above with co-founder Chrys Bader, won’t say how many active users Secret has since it’s still early days, and he won’t comment on rumors that he’s in the process of raising more money on top of the $1.5 million Secret has already brought in from Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins and Index Ventures. But in the next couple of weeks Secrets will be rolling out an update that gives users “control of their security and privacy,” Byttow says. “We have some good, really useful things for people to feel safe about what they post.”

I’ve tried Secret and it’s certainly addictive, thanks to the overarching awareness that you probably know the people who are posting these private snippets. While many of the short posts are tame (lots of complaints of being single on Valentines Day today, for instance) the odd few can sound salacious or gossipy enough to want to check the feed again.

“It’s the lure of the unknown, the wildcard,” says one Silicon Valley PR maven who confessed to using Secret for some time. “If you just scroll a little more you might get the golden ticket.”

The trouble with these networks is they can get so gossipy and negative that users are eventually put off. A raft of similar desktop-based networks like Formspring and AskFM, have been endlessly criticized for encouraging bullying, and Secret users have already been highlighting names of VCs or tech journalists they don’t like. Whisper, a two-year old app that lets you post secret confessionals on stock photos to a network of strangers, has a team of more than 100 curators tasked with weeding out bullying posts.

Technologists from the world of privacy and anonymity are weary. Earlier this week Chris “moot” Poole, founder of the 10-year-old anonymous image board 4chan, wrote a post on his blog defending the creation of anonymous social networks. Poole has been worried for the last few years that anonymous networks like 4chan were going the way of the dinosaur amidst the explosion of carefully-cultivated profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn. Now he’s heartened at the growth of new anonymous apps like Whisper and Secret and the kind of creativity and self-expression they could foster. But he warns such apps shouldn’t slap on words like “anonymity” without taking all the right precautions.

Poole said he was “shocked,” for instance, that Secret required users to hand over their email addresses and phone numbers to give the app access to their contacts. “I never allow apps to do that,” he said in an interview, adding that he’s only tried Secret on a friend’s phone. “For me the crown jewel are my address book and calendar. I feel more privately about my address book than my Facebook profile.”

Poole is largely polite about apps like Secret, Whisper and Confide, though he notes there’s now a “gold rush” in Silicon Valley to create anonymous or ephemeral apps like Snapchat, moving into an area he’s had a decade’s worth of experience with. “The industry has spent ten years rushing to capitalize on real identity and friendship based networks, and now it’s getting turned on its head,” he said. “I’ve been on that end of the spectrum for my whole career. On interest based communities.”

Assuming Poole is right about a rush for more anonymous social networks, we may see an interesting split in the way they’re used. Byttow says Secret is fundamentally different to an app like Whisper because Secret is a communication tool. As well as adding more privacy controls, his 4-person team, based in Google Ventures’ offices in San Francisco, are also working on adding features later this year that will allow users to connect more directly with one another, similar to the way Tinder connects strangers who are geographically nearby.

Whisper meanwhile has an editorial staff headed by former Gawker editor Neetzan Zimmerman, whose expertise in the world of viral stories will see him turn Whisper’s pithy, anonymous posts into viral content. “Going down this route I believe makes Whisper a media company,” says Byttow. “They’re curating the best pieces of content that anyone can passively look at, enjoy and move on.”

While Whisper’s posts can go viral based on algorithms that rank them according to classifications like commenting, Byttow says Secret’s post go viral in a more organic way, through a user’s personal network. When people in a user’s contacts lists “heart” a Secret post it’ll go into their circle too, and thus spread to more people. Byttow says he wants Secret to help people “connect on a deep and emotional level, and then perhaps learn new ideas and meet new people through the viral mechanism of secret spreading.”

It’s a respectable goal and certainly one that people seem to eager to try in a world of constant digital curation. But as Poole points out, this new breed of anonymous networks will need to think carefully through issues like security and privacy, as Secret already seems to be doing.

Source: Forbes


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