Late on a Saturday evening in San Francisco, at a party filled with tech workers, people keep retreating to odd corners to stare at their phones. This happens at every party these days, of course, but what’s different here is that the partygoers are all staring at, and talking about, an app called Secret. Lately it’s been topic number one among Silicon Valley tech workers, venture capitalists, and the media who cover them. All around San Francisco, people are devouring their Secret feeds, with their unpredictable mix of sex, drugs, and industry gossip. Valentine’s Day threesomes, photos of your best weed, blow jobs in the restaurant kitchen — it’s all here, maybe true and maybe not, but guaranteed to get you guessing about who posted it.
The secrets have all been posted by your friends, though you’ll never know which friend: Secret is "anonymish." It’s a feed of gossip created by the contacts in your iPhone, but labeled only as being from a "friend" or "friend of a friend." (Popular secrets from elsewhere around the world also surface, labeled only by their point of geographic origin.) Who said this? Is it true? I think I might know who this is talking about. Secret is Facebook as a masquerade ball, Twitter without the self-promotion, Google+’s private sharing done right. It’s the curiosity gap as a social network, and it also serves as a critique of all the others. Elsewhere you are inauthentic and dull, it seems to say. Secret is a place to be yourself.
Secret is a place to be yourself
Originally, Secret wasn’t supposed to be a social network at all. David Byttow, who previously built software at Google and Square, was originally interested in the idea of anonymous feedback. How do you chide someone for bringing a cellphone to a meeting, for example, without attaching your name to it?
For fun, Byttow sent an anonymous love note via text message to his girlfriend, who was then living in Paris. She called him immediately. What is this? Is this you? The anonymity of the message had given it an unusual power. "I knew there was something there," he says. Soon after, Byttow sent an email to his friend Chrys Bader, who would soon become his co-founder. "It said I had a secret," Bader recalls. He clicked a link that took him to a simple black web page. White text faded in. It read: "A new form of communication is blossoming in your hands."
But anonymity is a double-edged sword. It brings out the best in people, as when nameless donors give millions to worthy causes. But it can also bring out the worst, as it has in a number of social-networking apps that users have turned into weapons for cyberbullying. Whether Secret proves to be more than a fad rests largely on how its founders manage that tension. "What we like to say is, we want our users to be on the edge — but not cross the line," Byttow says.
It may be easier said than done.
A perfect circle
Secret’s co-founders worked on traditional social media networks for years before deciding to embrace sub rosa sharing. Bader previously developed Fliggo, a social network for video, and Treehouse, an early take on mobile photo sharing. Byttow helped build the original version of Google+, where he built the +1 button. They began working together at Google after the company recruited Bader from Treehouse to work on photo tools for Google+.
Like Secret, Google+ launched as an effort to make people feel more comfortable in sharing more privately. Its idea was to ask users to build lists (called Circles) of friends and acquaintances, and choose which lists to share with each time they posted. "The problem is that it doesn’t work that way," Byttow says. "Social circles and social norms are ever-expanding, changing, moving around. It’s very fluid." To make the average person truly comfortable sharing more private thoughts, you had to let them do so without letting the post follow them around forever.
'Anonymish' apps are gaining momentum
It’s a realization that has been gathering momentum in Silicon Valley since the surprise success of Snapchat, which popularized the idea of sending picture and video messages that self-destruct after a few seconds. Fast-growing Whisper, which drew inspiration from the old PostSecret website, created an app where anyone could post a confession anonymously and interact with the person who posted it; the company raised $21 million last year, and users reportedly spend 30 minutes per day using it. Whisper, like Secret, has proven surprisingly addictive: it’s especially popular with teenagers, which helps explain why its feed is so earnest. "I have always wanted to date a girl who thinks badly of herself to show her that she’s perfect," goes one popular recent Whisper. "I got kicked out of Barnes & Noble for putting all the Bibles in the fictional section," goes another.
The fact that Secret posts come from your friends lends it the immediacy of Snapchat while preserving the anonymity that has made Whisper successful. But it only turned out that way after Byttow’s original idea — one-to-one messaging — proved too limited.
Byttow and Bader began working in earnest on the app in August 2013, just after Bader left Google. The original version limited users to sending anonymous, self-destructing messages via text message and email. But beta testers found few occasions to send those messages, and the founders were determined to create an app that people would open every day. One day while walking through San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood, Bader and Byttow hit upon the idea of letting users broadcast their secrets to all of their friends. The app would use your contacts to match you with other people you had shared your phone number with, sparing you from having to add friends. "It kind of clicked," Bader says.
On November 15th, the founders looked at data from the new app they had given their friends and found that they were opening it every day, spending far more time browsing secrets than they had sending messages. "There was a clear difference," Bader says. They polished the new app over the holidays, and put it in the App Store on January 30th. In the days that followed, it reached as high as no. 2 in the social networking category, all without ever being featured by Apple.
The thing about superpowers
Content is king, as the saying goes, and the content on Secret is more compelling than most. It’s hypnotic in the way Facebook once was, before it became crowded with advertising and posts from distant acquaintances. Browsing through the feed each day, I’ve seen credible rumors’ about tech founders’ infidelity and workplace behavior. I’ve seen paeans to marijuana and cocaine that would be unimaginable on any other social network. I’ve seen patently false rumors of impending company acquisitions, and oddly sweet mash notes to anonymous friends and lovers. Over the weekend an unknown friend confessed to having oral sex in a bar that I go to sometimes, and immediately I drew up a list of suspects in my mind. I narrowed the list to two, and texted one of them. "It’s true one of us posted the secret, but no blow jobs were actually had," came the reply. I didn’t know whether to believe him or the original secret.
Secret can also be mean-spirited
But Secret can also be mean-spirited, in the way that anonymous messaging often leads to. PostSecret killed off its own app in 2012 after developers found it impossible to manage the malicious posts. Last year, the Latvia-based question-and-answer site Ask.fm caused an uproar after one of its users committed suicide and her father attributed the death in part to bullying she faced from anonymous users. Ask.fm had replicated the experience of its model, Formspring, which also had encouraged anonymous messaging only to see a spate of users commit suicide.
Secret likely would not be the first choice of a would-be cyberbully: there’s no way to message a user directly, or even know for certain that a target has seen your post. Still, several Silicon Valley personalities have already come in for abuse on the site. The social network Path and its founder, Dave Morin, were frequent early targets. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, and the investor Shervin Pishevar have also been subjects of abuse. "Anonymity breeds meanness — the internet has proven this time and time again," the investor Sam Altman wrote last week in a post about why he had already deleted Secret from his phone. "Anonymous social networks have been (thus far, anyway) in the category of services that get worse as they get bigger — unlike services like Facebook or Twitter that get better as they get bigger."
The founders’ thinking aligns with that of Chris Poole, aka moot, the founder of the anonymous message board 4chan. Poole recently posted on his blog that anonymity "enables creativity like none other."
"It’s ideas, not reputations, that shine here," he wrote of 4chan — and the same could be said of Secret.
"It's not really a superpower if it can't also be used for evil."
The founders believe that if they keep users’ worst impulses under control, the network will thrive. "Any good product should feel like, to the person who receives it, that they have a superpower," Byttow says. "But by my definition, it’s not really a superpower if it can’t also be used for evil." Secret is aggressive about removing flagged content, and will only get better at it over time, he says. "We take a lot of measures to make people feel safe in this environment. They can say what they mean, they can be themselves — but don’t make other people not feel safe. Don’t be a jerk."
On to Austin
The perils of anonymously posted content is only one of the challenges that Secret faces as it grows. The founders say they their top priority is to break out of the Silicon Valley bubble. To that end, Byttow and Bader will be taking Secret to this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival, which previously helped Twitter and Foursquare break out to a national audience. What are they doing, exactly? "It’s a secret," Byttow says.
Secret is working on unspecified new tools that they say will make users feel more confident about what they post. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is raising a new round of venture capital. And it’s working on ways to let users be more expressive when they post, adding to the colors and textures that are available now.
And like any Secret power user, the founders are spending hours a day glued to the feed. "I had a no-cell-phones-in-meetings rule until I invented Secret," Byttow laughs. He looks down at his phone, and keeps scrolling.