“Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” – Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin spoke many wise words, but those are amongst my favorite simply because of how true they are. People love secrets not just because they know something only a few other people know, but because of the thrill they get when they share them.
“You can’t tell anyone I told you this…” we say. Or “cross your heart and hope to die…” Or “Swear on your life…” And it’s a risk. Because if the secret gets out, oftentimes it can be traced directly back to us.
Until now! In early February, a new app called “Secret” debuted. Secret is an app that lets people anonymously post messages (secrets) to their friends (using their contact list). Users can see how many friends are using the app, but never which friends. Secrets are shown to be from friends or friends of friends, and more popular secrets (ones that get a lot of “likes”) also show up with the location of the poster.
There have always been ways to post anonymously on the web -- comments sections, for example -- but Secret changes the game because now that anonymous comment? You know it’s coming from a friend. You just don’t know which friend.
David Byttow, one of the creators of Secret, claims that “Secret isn’t for sharing secrets,” but rather that “it’s for sharing secretly.” I say, it doesn’t matter what you intend for your creation, but rather how your creation is used. See: Frankenstein and his monster.
I joined Secret a few weeks ago just to see what all of the fuss was about. The app was being marketed as “a platform that will bring more authenticity, self-awareness, and empathy to the world” and while that seemed like an impossible feat for an app, I figured I had to at least give it a shot. I mean more empathy to the world? Who doesn’t want a whole lotta that?
What I discovered was something I already suspected: Anonymity can be a great gift, but in many circumstances, it’s a gift that that people just can’t help but abuse.
Of course, this isn’t true for all people posting on Secret. The vast majority are using it in the ways you’d expect, posting everything from the petty to the predictable, the mundane to the momentous.
In the three weeks or so that I’ve been using Secret, here’s what I’ve “learned” from the "secrets" people posted. (And yes learned is in quotes for a reason.)
1. People like sex.
2. They also like porn.
3. People think they’re better than other people...and have strong opinions on NYC vs. SF.
4. People are self-absorbed.
5. People have two opinions about SXSW: 1.) It sucks and you’re lame for going. 2.) It’s awesome and you’re lame for saying it sucks.
6. There are still some earnest people out in the world.
7. And people who hate them.
But, out of all of the things I've learned from Secret, there are two that have really stuck with me:
8. Acid is making a major comeback. Or, it never went away?
9. And when given a cloak of anonymity, some people get super catty and mean.
I’ve actually yet to post a Secret because I’m so self-absorbed that I want credit for anything and everything I say. I’m also not afraid to have unpopular opinions and, though I sometimes fail, I try not to pick on people unnecessarily. Also, my actual secrets? The ones I don’t want anyone to know? I don’t tell those to anyone. Because Ben? He knows what’s up.
I do, however, check Secret once or twice a day, but unlike Twitter or Instagram, Secret tends to leave me feeling bummed out. Part of it is that it’s a lot of people saying stuff that doesn’t need to be anonymous in the first place, but mostly it’s that not a day goes by where I don’t see a Secret that’s just flat-out mean.
Recently, I stumbled across a Secret criticizing Venture Capitalist Mark Suster. The post called him “a Fraud,” and said he is “the most overhyped VC out there.” The post came from a “Friend of friend,” which means there’s a good chance I’ve interacted with the poster, but that he isn’t in my address book. As of today, the post has 78 “likes” and 77 comments.
Now here’s the thing. Mark Suster may very well be overhyped. It’s unlikely he’s a fraud, simply based on his business success. But regardless, what bothers me is that the Secret is totally unproductive. Yes, the poster feels that he is calling out a truth, as he explains in the comments, and that the post was intended to “help people,” but how? The fact of the matter is: I doubt Mark Suster will be affected by this post on a professional level, but on a personal level? I don’t care that he said he has “thick enough skin” to handle it; I’m sure he does. But what if he didn’t?
I experienced a very mild form of this myself the other day. A friend -- again, I have no idea which one -- posted “Just gave head to a startup.” I don’t even know what that means or what it’s supposed to mean, but a few comments in, someone wrote, “Daisy?”
I realize that in the larger scheme of things, someone making a slut joke about me is not a big deal. But in that moment -- when I saw that my friends were flippantly joking about what a whore I am -- it hurt. Sure, they might have been joking, but is it really a joke if it's behind my back (they had no idea if I'd ever see the post/comment) and, thus, at my expense?
Not willing to let it go, I left a sarcastic comment and signed it with my name. “Lightning bolt” then apologized (not shown) and said that it’s true, I am funnier than that, and then the original poster got hurt that we were saying she wasn’t funny (I didn't even know she was trying to be?) and ended up deleting the entire thing, and… I mean, I just had to call someone “lightning bolt” which should go to prove my point about how ridiculous this whole thing is.
Right now, Secret is mostly used by early adopters and people in Silicon Valley. There’s a chance if it becomes popular that the tone will change and there will be less “insider” talk and attempts to take tech people down. There’s a chance that it will become the app the founders wanted to create -- a safe place for people to share. I really do like that idea as not everyone is willing or able to be as open as some of us. And Secret can provide people who lead more private lives not only the opportunity to air their innermost thoughts, but the chance to get support and feedback from a community of their peers.
The truth, however, is that it will never be just a good place to go to share anonymously. Because with anonymity comes a lack of repercussion. And some people just can’t resist using that power for evil instead of good.