Public confessions that stay private
Thursday , July 31, 2014 - 10:29 AM
Secrets are not supposed to be told, let alone shared publicly. Still, some people are posting their confessions on the app Secret, created by a Silicon Valley start-up that last week collected $25 million in funding (to make a total of $35 million so far).
Now that Europe is dealing with the “right to be forgotten,” users seem to be growing more sensitive to the pitfalls of having their personal history permanently posted online. By contrast, the anonymity promised by apps like Secret — and others targeting this market such as Confide, Whisper and Yik Yak — can feel like a relief.
Here’s how Secret works: The app lets users share comments with people located nearby and with friends and friends of friends (through an algorithm that tracks phone and Facebook contacts), without revealing the identity of either the person sending the message or the person receiving it.
When the app was launched in February, critics argued that it would be used for bullying, sexting or sending other inappropriate or hurtful comments. But the creators say that people instead are commenting on a surprising range of issues, including current affairs like Gaza, politics, dating, work — even offering existential confessions and reflections.
“Topics tend to ebb and flow, similar to Twitter,” said David Byttow, co-founder of Secret. “Either there’s a new trend popping up, or there’s a common sentiment shared among communities. It’s kind of like Twitter in that we see trends and themes pop up. But, we see a lot of people asking questions that they wouldn’t ask anywhere else like, ‘What’s your title, gender and salary?‘ or ‘How do you know when your relationship is over?‘ “
Talking about emotions is indeed one of the most widespread uses of the app, which encourages people to express their feelings out loud, without facing any repercussions for what they say.
Posts can go viral based on other people’s reactions: If they click the heart button, the message is favored; the more people like it, the better it ranks. The company is also working on functions to help users connect better with each other on a one-to-one basis, like Tinder does, by linking people geographically.
Based on the premise that users self-regulate themselves when talking in social media forums, Secret creators expect them to use the app to set their creativity free. “There is a surplus of personal thoughts, feelings and questions we have on a moment-by-moment basis, but are afraid or reluctant to share,” Byttow says. “Secret gives people a safe, well-lit space to talk about what they really think or feel and for their friends or people in their network to respond.”
The cathartic value that some see in Secret is expressed in multiple ways, with posts talking about frustrations, failures and unresolved issues. A common thread is about letdowns and regrets.
It’s as if people are willing to say things they wouldn’t tell even their best friends. But that could have a downside. Wade Harman, who blogs about social media psychology, thinks apps such as this one might make people less socially oriented and allow them to keep more to themselves by not taking responsibility for their own ideas.
“Identity is everything in social media, especially when you are trying to build a presence online,” Harman said. “From a strictly psychological standpoint, without revealing your identity you can’t build trust, let alone building a community on social. If they can’t find you and know who you are, there is no emotional connection.”
Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, said people could post hurtful comments on Secret. “There is the risk of bullying and misinformation,” she said. “Most bullying, however, is not anonymous because it is about power and reinforcing group affiliation.” Also, she noted, the app could always be removed from the phone.
In Rutledge’s opinion, the app can offer people potential healing: “Being able to externalize our feelings of shame, regret, pain and guilt can be psychologically helpful. We are social creatures with an unending interest in other people. Seeing ‘private’ thoughts and feelings is compelling given our need for social connection and community.”
Secret’s creators won’t say how many users it has, but they said it keeps growing. Byttow said the company is scaling and expanding internationally; Secret is already popular in Russia, the Netherlands and China, where the start-up recently formed a joint venture with a local company.