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Secret's out: The rise and fall of the anonymous social app

Nicole Lee , @nicole
04.30.15
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Secret, the app that was practically synonymous with the anonymous-app movement, is shutting down. David Byttow, Secret's co-founder and CEO, explained in a Medium post yesterday that the reason for the shuttering is that the app no longer represents the vision he had when he started it in January last year. And if the lackluster activity in my Secret feed of late is any indication, I'm guessing the severe decline in users is a reason too. Its recent design overhaul probably alienated a lot of folks and the departure of co-founder Chrys Bader can't have helped things either.

Yet, for a little while there, Secret was the hottest app around, at least with a few early adopters and media watchers intrigued by the idea of covert confessions and mysterious missives. For many, it offered an inside look at the Silicon Valley gossip mill -- there were rumors about Yahoo buying Evernote (false), Vic Gundotra leaving Google (true) and Nike shutting down its FuelBand division (not quite). Many also used it as an anonymous form of Tinder. With the help of third-party messaging services (Secret would eventually have a built-in messaging feature), it became a little like blind-date roulette -- where you don't know what the other person looks like until you meet -- thus adding a bit of spice to the normal hookup.

It became a little like blind date roulette -- where you don't know what the other person looks like until you meet -- thus adding a bit of spice to the normal hookup.

For most people, though, Secret simply offered a way to vent out loud to a group of friends -- or folks in your phone's contacts list anyway -- without anyone knowing who you were. The original idea, at least from what I could glean from an interview with Bader back in the day, was to foster a safe environment so that people would feel comfortable saying all sorts of things without fear of repercussion. It's an idea that must've resonated enough with people that Secret has garnered nearly $35 million in funding.

But, well, human nature is a strange thing, and things didn't always work out that way. For one thing, anonymous comments are often anything but supportive, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone on the internet. After all, everyone knows anonymity very often leads to bad behavior online (GIFT, anyone?).

Further, because the secret is constrained to friends or friends of friends, it isn't very difficult to figure out who's saying what, especially if you have a small social circle. If you exposed your infatuation for a boy at school, it's very likely that a close bud would figure out it's you who said it. That might not be so bad if it's something as innocent as that, but for something much more salacious? It might be a little TMI. Secret did change its design so that you could share your confessions on a global location-based list instead, but that made it a little too similar to other anonymous-sharing apps like Whisper and Yik Yak. The company also tried other features like "Dens" for companies and schools and event-specific feeds, but those didn't quite work out either.

For me, I'll admit to using Secret quite heavily for a few months, letting loose private thoughts about topics too personal to ever chat about with family and friends. It was thrilling at first to finally be able to reveal these pent-up feelings, but in the end, it felt a bit hollow. I wasn't revealing my innermost desires to a confidante or a trusted BFF; I was just posting them on an app to no one in particular. It was a brief flash of catharsis, sure, but that was about it. It didn't really do anything to alleviate feelings of sadness or despair.

That's not to say that anonymity doesn't have its place on the internet -- of course it does. Other anonymous sharing apps exist for those who want it -- Whisper recently reported it hit 10 million users for example -- and of course you can always use pseudonyms to mask your real identity, especially if you want to protect your privacy. And, in a way, I understand why Secret was an attractive idea -- it feels good to be able to reveal your true self, even in such an artificial way, to anyone willing to listen. But in the end, I felt that talking to real people was more satisfying. And I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

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