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Secret is relaunching as a faster anonymous social network with chat

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Talk to any of Secret's 15 million users in just two taps

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When Secret launched in February, it quickly became the most talked-about new social network in Silicon Valley. Like other ‘"anonymish" social networks, it offers a compelling mix of sex, drugs, and intrigue. But Secret goes a step further by connecting to your phone’s address book, then showing you your friends’ posts without revealing which friend said them. Several news stories broke first on Secret, fueling buzz that led the app to be downloaded more than 15 million times in 10 months. It hit No. 1 in the App Store in seven different countries.

But in recent months, Secret has lost some of its initial power. The number of posts from friends in my feed slowed to a trickle, and Secret is no longer among the top 1,500 apps, according to App Annie. But as activity in the app slowed, Secret co-founders David Byttow and Chrys Bader were working on the second version of the service — and it might be the thing that brings Secret back to life.

A faster, more text-based version of the service

Secret 2.0 for iPhone and Android is a faster, more text-based version of the service that puts a new emphasis on chat. Gone are the slow-loading square photos overlaid with words; in their place is a Twitter-like feed with snippets of text. You can still add a photo to your post, but it appears in a circular thumbnail next to the text. To view it you press and hold the image, and the picture pops up in full-screen mode for as long as you hold it, much as it would in Snapchat. "We still believe great ideas can come from anywhere," Byttow says. "It’s more important what is said than who said it. Our goal is to facilitate conversation — either in a physical location, or socially, with your friends."

About conversation: Secret now enables private, one-on-one messaging between users. While you can still leave public comments on a secret, tapping on a user’s avatar will now let you contact the author of a post directly. Each chat gets a random label, like "Hidden Village" or "Magical Theater," to help you distinguish them from one another. (Each user also gets a randomly generated avatar, as before.) The conversations are ephemeral — they delete themselves after about a day of inactivity. But it feels more like instant messaging than trading emails; Secret alerts you when someone begins typing in response to one of your private messages, and highlights their avatar when they are present in the chat. (You can also block or mute people you don't want to talk to.)

The absence of a private chat feature had led to difficult workarounds for Secret users who wanted to connect through the app: creating one-off Gmail accounts and leaving the address in the comments, say, or using Anonyfish, a third-party service built for the express purpose of letting Secret users chat. (Its future after today’s launch is unclear, though its founder has said he plans to integrate it with other services.)

Secret is also making a major change to how you can share. Before, every post was broadcast to the entire Secret network, then filtered into "friend" and "explore" feeds. Now you see at least two feeds: secrets from your friends, and secrets from your city or school. In an important change, you can choose to share to your location rather than to your friends. Secret says it supports "thousands" of locations, including many colleges and universities in addition to cities. (If you work for one of the handful of companies that uses Secret, and you have verified your employment through an email address, you’ll see a feed for that as well.)

Encouraging you to share more

If the changes have a common goal, it’s encouraging people to share more, both by making the app easier to use, and by making its users more comfortable about posting. "We just believe that ideas should be discussed openly — and social networks today make that really hard," Bader says. "We believe that no one should ever have to feel alone — and should be able to put themselves out there, even if they feel like they’re not in the majority." The location-based feed lets you post to your location without worrying that your friends will recognize you by identifying details; your post will be labeled only with your location.

Rise of the anonymous

Social networks that cloak identity have never been more popular — or more highly valued. Yik Yak, an anonymous network modeled on bulletin boards, was valued at up to $400 million this year after becoming popular at schools. (The new Secret design has clear similarities to Yik Yak, which also has a text-based feed and emphasizes location.) Whisper, which has focused on sharing its anonymous posts with media companies, is reportedly valued at closer to $200 million.

And yet like so many anonymity-focused apps before them, they have been dogged by controversy. Yik Yak has been criticized for enabling bullying and bomb threats. And Whisper found itself embroiled in scandal after The Guardian reported that the company is secretly tracking users. It suspended its editorial team nearly two months ago pending an investigation; the company did not respond when The Verge asked for an update on its progress.

To its credit, Secret has mostly avoided troubles like these. The company has invested heavily in moderation, hiring top executives from Facebook to lead its team, and took steps to prevent users from naming individuals in posts. But it's also true that getting rid of people's names in Secret that many people stopped using it. If they're concerned about this, the founders don't show it. "Everything we should do should allow for people to feel more comfortable posting," Bader says.

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And yet you can’t deny that posts about individuals were one of the things that made Secret so compelling in the first place. Absent gossip, Secret can start to feel like a stream of Successories posters. "Feels better after a nice chat with an old friend," read a post in my feed this week. And yet, anecdotally at least, gossip also helped to drive people away from Secret. There’s an ick factor to obsessively checking an app to see which companies are in flames, which executives are getting fired, and so on. Thanks to Secret, you can read up on local gossip — but should you?

There are a few more significant updates in the app. Most notably, you can no longer disassociate yourself from all your public posts with a single click; those are associated with the phone number you use to log in. (There are legitimate privacy concerns about having your posts linked to your phone number, but it seems like it could also encourage good behavior.) The upside of a persistent account is that you can now view all of your posts in a single place, which was impossible before, and delete any of them that you wish to. You can also browse the app without signing in with a phone number, if you like. And there’s a nice feature for anyone whose secrets ever went viral: the app now shows you a running total of how many hearts your combined posts have received.

The web version of Secret will disappear

Meanwhile, Secret has become less of a media product — less like Whisper, in other words. The company plans to eliminate the web version of Secret, where it hosted collections of popular posts. And there are no longer permalinks for posts that you can share to the web.

The company continues to experiment with "Secret for Work," its corporate product. (You verify where you work with an email, and then you can participate.) Dens are actively used at companies including Google and Facebook, where more than 2,000 employees use Secret to talk about company issues and share inside jokes. So far, it’s all free — like most young social networks, Secret isn’t yet talking about how it will make money. But Byttow says he is impressed with Snapchat, which for now is putting ads only in its sponsored stories feed.

Secret’s quick rise and sudden slowing of its feed led some to write it off too quickly. (Business Insider somewhat hilariously put the company in a list of "startup darlings that fell off the map in 2014" — which, again, was the year that Secret attracted its first 15 million users.) The new version is faster, more fluid, and feels closer to what its founders set out to build. "Secret should be like a movie," Bader says. "There are sad parts, stressful parts, happy parts. It’s got the full gamut of emotions." The new version of the app is good enough to warrant a second look. The question is how many of the Secret users who come back will stay there.