Shh, it's a Secret: The allure of the anonymous internet

"I'm terrified I might not actually be all that smart."

"Made a batch of Jello just to stick my dick in it. No regrets."

"I like taking the ferry because I get to drink in public legally."

This is just a small sampling of posts I've recently seen on Secret, an anonymous-sharing app that's part of a new trend in Silicon Valley. It's a little like Whisper, a competing app that's been around since 2012, except that instead of letting you broadcast your anonymous missives to the world, posts on Secret are limited to a network of friends based on your phone's address book.

When I first heard of these anonymous-sharing apps, I was intrigued, but confused about their popularity. Surely anonymity on the internet isn't difficult -- you can be whomever you want online, right? Just create a fake account or join the social network of your choosing, and you're free to say whatever you like. But as I spent time on Whisper and Secret, I found that their barrier to entry is so much lower than having to come up with a fake persona. There's no need for a username or a special profile page -- you just download the app, answer a few questions and away you go. You do need to enter in an email address, phone number and password to Secret, but the app guides you through it pretty easily. Secret uses your contact info to connect you to your friends (not to worry; none of your contact details are uploaded to Secret's servers), but if you misbehave or are reported as a "bad actor," you and your associated phone number may be banned from the network.

Once you're in, the freedom to say whatever you want is strangely alluring, especially so with Secret, where your confessions are likely to be seen by those sympathetic to your woes. In a world where your real name is exposed and everything you say online is recorded for time immemorial, anonymous-sharing apps provide an escape that's all too rare.

When the internet was young, most of us used fake screen names to identify ourselves. Whether it was LazyCow18 or LonelyGirl15, a nom de plume was preferable. Not only was it an easy way to set ourselves apart online, but it also allowed us to separate our online existence from the real world. Some of us used this cloak of anonymity to try on different personas, while others simply enjoyed the ability to speak freely without the debilitating confines of a shy and awkward personality. These days, however, internet anonymity is not nearly as predominant.

Hidden personas still exist on forums like Reddit, 4chan and most message boards, but by and large, our public and online identities tend to be one and the same. Facebook's popularity shoulders much of the blame for this phenomenon, especially since the use of real names is core to how the social network works. After all, how else are your old high school mates supposed to find you on Facebook if you've named yourself GamerX4000? Real identities are also core to another area of interest for Facebook: targeted ads.

In a world where your real name is exposed and everything you say online is recorded for time immemorial, anonymous-sharing apps provide an escape that's all too rare.

And it's not just Facebook, either. Google+ came under fire a few years ago when it banned the use of pseudonyms. (It's since loosened that rule and now allows the use of "common names.") YouTube, long known for its cesspool of anonymous comments, recently encouraged real-name use with its integration with Google+. Even if you've held strong to your online pseudonym, it's still likely that you've used your real name somewhere on the internet, be it on LinkedIn, Twitter or your company's website. One of the benefits of this transparency is that you're held accountable for what you say. Incidences of trolling and bullying are likely to subside if people know their real names are tied to their online activities. Real names also make it easier for us to stay connected, and in the case of LinkedIn, they can also help you find a job. The consequence, however, is that everything you do on the internet can be traced back to you, which forces you to watch what you say.

When Chrys Bader and David Byttow developed Secret last year, their goal was to provide an avenue to let us express ourselves more honestly, which they felt was difficult to do with today's tools.

"Facebook created order out of chaos," Bader said in an interview with us. "But that order was very constricting. It trained us to share in a certain way, to curate our identities, to put forward things we wouldn't be judged for. ... It can be stressful after a while."

The first version of Secret was an app that let you send anonymous messages directly to someone in your phone's contact list. While this certainly obeyed their initial credo of encouraging people to open up, the subsequent engagement and response to these direct messages were poor. They eventually adapted the product to broadcast to your entire phone's contacts list instead, which improved interactions dramatically.

Here's a brief primer on how Secret works: Anything that you post on Secret can be seen by the people in your phonebook who are also on Secret. If someone "hearts" a post, that secret will then be shared to his or her contacts list. If those people "heart" it, it will spread to their contacts list and so on. Secrets in your immediate circle will be marked as from a "Friend," those one step removed are from a "Friend of Friend", while posts that are two or more steps removed are marked with the person's general location. Only friends and friend-of-friends can leave comments on your posts. The idea behind this relatively closed network is that you're more likely to share a deep secret if you know it's a safe space. Additionally, the fact that you might know the person on the other end makes Secret a touch more personal than the seemingly random confessionals on Whisper. Right now Secret is iOS-only, but the company tells us an Android version should debut soon.

"Facebook created order out of chaos," Bader said in an interview with us. "But that order was very constricting."

"We wanted people to use their address book as the source of the social graph," said Bader. "We didn't want you to find friends and follow people like all the other social services out there." Conveying emotion, he said, is something that's much easier to do when you're with friends. "Sometimes even in a close network, you restrain yourself. You never really discuss culturally taboo things like salary or sex."

In Secret, however, those topics proliferate. From just one week with the app, I've seen posts that include melancholy thoughts about life, salacious sexual adventures, controversial political ideas and just random confessions of unrequited affections and financial woes. Its stream of consciousness feels a lot like Twitter, except, well, you don't know who's on the other end.

The benefits of Secret go beyond just catharsis as well. Recently, for example, a woman who goes by the name of "Amy" opined on Secret that she was the only person out of a five-person company who wasn't hired in a recent acquisition by Google. Though she's still skittish about coming forward, Secret offered her a chance to speak up about what she perceived to be an injustice. We can imagine a scenario where anonymous-sharing apps are used to reveal a wrongdoing that might otherwise go unsaid. Still, because these posts are anonymous, it's difficult to corroborate their validity. In the early days of Secret, for example, there was a rumor floating around that Yahoo was acquiring Evernote. This, of course, turned out to be false. However, Bader said the incident was actually a good thing, as it created a healthy skepticism about what is or isn't real.

No matter what you think of these anonymous-sharing apps, however, it's clear that they have a sizable fanbase, at least in the tech community. Whisper, for example, has raised nearly $54 million to date, while Secret has already received early funding to the sum of $8.6 million even though it was only introduced in January this year. Secret in particular has something of a cult following, and frequently gets mentioned on Twitter and the media as a poster child for the anonymous-app movement. There's even something called anonyfish, a rogue spin-off service designed to let people on Secret message each other anonymously using throwaway usernames. It's no wonder then that there seems to be a glut of anonymous-messaging apps like Yik Yak, Blink and Confide flooding the market. There are even rumors that Facebook -- the originator of the real-name movement -- might be considering an anonymous service of its own.

"Secret is like being in a room with all of your friends, but you don't know who's saying what," Bader said. "You get to peer into your friends lives, to experience truth, sadness, loss ... raw human emotion. It's what makes Secret so addicting."