Unmasked: The Secret Life of Pretty Much Everybody

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There’s been no shortage of posts about Secret in the past month or so, but Mark Suster’s How do I Really Feel About Anonymous Apps Like Secret? crystallized a couple of issues I’ve had rolling around in my head about the app.

I strongly recommend reading Suster’s post if you haven’t, as it explores a couple of important issues for Secret in particular and the-Internet-that-will-be as a whole: identity in its myriad forms, and reputation. But I also think that his post misses one issue that is key for both Secret and the larger identity discussion: identity, pseudonymity, and anonymity are all concepts defined in the context of a surrounding community. 

And that piece–the community that defines one’s identity on Secret–is where I think we hit something really interesting.

Your Secret Identity

Secret is, in my estimation, a textbook example of “managed anonymity.” The public face of your contributions is anonymized, but there is a fixed identity system under the hood. You log in with your fixed identity, and your contributions are associated with that identity: the service’s operators have the option of responding to bad actors, not just specific, individual bad actions.

[Editor's note: As always, I must now pause to call out Urban Baby, the grandaddy of managed anonymity. More than a decade later we're still just catching up to what was happening there.]

As Suster suggests in his post, this also opens up the possibility of bringing reputation into play. Even if other users don’t know which Secret contributions are mine, the operators (in theory, though difficult) could; if I consistently contribute content that the community flags as a problem, the service can start to take that into account. Maybe the universe for my contributions is circumscribed further, or maybe I’m removed entirely.

But look at how reputation is formulated here: I made the assumption that “the community” was indicating that certain contributions were unwanted or inappropriate. It’s not Secret’s operators deciding that certain contributions shouldn’t appear on their service, but rather Secret responding to the judgment of its users. The community on Secret–not Secret the platform–is necessarily the basis for reputation.

Your Secret Community

And so what is that community on Secret?

At the most basic level it’s your friends, or at least people you know well enough that you have their number in your phone. Secrets can spread from there, as your friends spread those secrets to their friends, but the explicit, stated core is that you’re sharing, secretly, with your friends. It feels, at least, like you’re sharing into a circumscribed, close-knit community. A secret may spread further, but you’re always sharing secrets “with your friends.”

And there, I think, is the rub.

We want to share secrets because we believe other people want to know. Whether it’s “Alice would never believe that this happened…”) or “Bob really should know that this happened…”, what makes exposing a secret appealing is the belief that we have an interested audience. A secret is at least as much about who doesn’t know it as who does. The worst possible response to revealing a secret isn’t shock or dismay, but indifference.

Secret, the app, depends on this combination of psychological factors. Consider the Secret about Mark Suster: the original keeper of the Secret shared it because they knew that people in their general circle of friends would see it, have context for the secret, and take note. The recipients in turn considered it noteworthy (if not necessarily “important”) because they knew that it originated with someone in their social circle.

Without this tension — wow, do you think Carol or Dave wrote that one? — Secret quickly loses its edge, its rush. In one direction, you’ve got secrets so pedestrian that you don’t care whose they are, and in the other you’ve got secrets from people you have no interest in to begin with.

I fully believe that the creators of Secret don’t intend for it to be used (solely) in the slam book-ish way that hit Suster. I also believe that they may have tied its future success to this model.

Bonus Micro-Post: Secrets and Whispers

If you’ve read all the way down to this, you’re probably already familiar with Whisper, another poster child for the ephemeral web. Secret is a much more elegant app, seems to take its anonymity more seriously, and offers a clear hook that Whisper lacks: secrets from people you probably know are more interesting than secrets from people you probably don’t know. Secret seems like it should be the clear winner. And yes: I’m not the first person to make the comparison between Whisper and MySpace on the design front.

But while I don’t particularly enjoy using Whisper, I’m almost always intrigued. I get moments of the unexpected from Whisper in a way that I don’t from Secret. Whisper feels to me like it’s got some conceptual space in which to experiment as it grows up, and I have a much harder time saying that about Secret.

About Ephemerality: Inboxes and Importance

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Being Some Thoughts on the Perceived Need for, and Function of, Ephemeral Content

I have started to believe that we — by which I mostly mean I, but there are a number of people in the boat with me these days — have been missing something in our discussion of the trend towards ephemeral content online.

Writing When the Internet Is Your Hometown a year ago, I saw the emergence of ephemeral-by-design online communication largely as a reaction to the longstanding drive towards the Internet as a permanent record. If you’re embarrassed by what you posted to Facebook as a sophomore in high school, then it seems reasonable that you start to gravitate towards services that avoid creating that same situation for your future selves.

In short: because your offline self can evolve as time passes, your online self should be allowed to do the same; let’s stop defaulting to permanence online just because we can.

I still believe that this is a significant factor in the development of the ephemeral-by-design corners of the digital world, but my perspective is evolving and it feels to me like there are a number of other interesting factors in play.

Take Confide, the ephemeral messaging app that has been pegged as “SnapChat for businesspeople.” As early articles about SnapChat were required to make at least one mention of sexting, Confide articles almost invariably bring up the specter of scofflaw businesspeople sharing insider information and laughing at document retention requirements. This is a reasonable concern, but probably a little overblown and possibly missing something important.

Jon Brod, one of the app’s creators, has a neat creation story for it: he says that the app arose from the hassles of scheduling an off-the-record employee reference discussion with Howard Lerman, now also a Confide co-founder.

“We’re busy and it took us six days to connect,” he said in a phone interview, explaining why they created the app. “Professional relationships require tools for impermanence and confidence. We wanted to take the proven model of meeting for an off-the-record cup of coffee and bring it online.”

That quote has stuck with me, because of the phrase “impermanence and confidence.” Does the confidence just refer to “confidence that this message won’t be shared,” or something more than that? Most of the “ephemeral web” coverage has focused on the left-hand term, but I think there may be more buried in that right-hand “confidence.”

I increasingly suspect that the confidence Brod is talking about is in large part confidence that the recipient understands that this communication requires their full attention – that this communication is important. When we have enough input that a Facebook status update that goes out to a thousand people might get no acknowledgement, perhaps we’re starting to feel the need to identify which messages are actually important.

My mother has a framed telegram on the wall of her apartment: it’s the telegram that her grandparents received when she was born. Telegrams, with their associated cost and effort, signified that the information being conveyed was important. Today we have no such mode of communication (other than those delivered by a process server, perhaps), and I think that some “ephemeral web” developers, perhaps without fully realizing it, are trying to address that issue.

When you open a SnapChat message, you know that you need to pay attention, because you won’t get a second chance to see it. SnapChat demands focus, even if a very small amount. When you sit down to have coffee with someone, you demand one another’s full attention, even if it’s just for twenty minutes.

But when you send an email to a busy business person — so busy that it takes them six days to find time for a five minute phone call — the odds are that they’ll be “processing email” when they see your message. They’re probably already thinking about the next email as they type their response to you. A Confide message, on the other hand, would be more like SnapChat, demanding the recipient’s full attention.

I’m sure there’s a niche market for the “HR/legal should never know about this message” functionality that Confide offers, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what Confide’s founders are trying to create. It feels very much like they’re trying to create a mechanism for Important Business Messages, but in the end just making another inbox.

Failure is Not an Option

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The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.

- Clay Shirky, Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality

Clay Shirky’s post struck a chord with me, as I have burned into my memory a meeting at which I actually heard a manager say those five exact words —failure is not an option — to his team (which did not, thankfully, include me).

From that experience, and the epic failure that inevitably followed, I came to a realization: with the exception of raging assholes, there are only two places from which a manager will ever speak those words, and neither of them is good.

The first place is one of ignorance. The manager doesn’t have a real understanding of the project, or how well (or badly) it’s going, and that makes them nervous. Instead of actually digging in to get that understanding, however, they just present the edict: the project will be successful. With this comes the implication that they don’t want to hear any more about the topic, as they have now done everything that could be expected of them.

In this scenario, the team has probably long since realized that the person in change has no idea what’s actually going on. The declaration itself, however, can be poison even to a project that’s actually going well: having the person in charge highlight their lack of trust in the team and ignorance of the amount of work that everyone has put in is a killer. Maybe the project ends well, but you’ve now got good odds that the people responsible for that success depart as quickly as they can.

The second place is one of fear. The manager knows that failure is a very real possibility (if not a certainty), but doesn’t feel that they can do anything to mitigate that possibility. Perhaps the manager has been issuing glowing progress reports despite knowing about difficulties encountered along the way, or committed up front to a scope or timeline that was unrealistic to begin with.

Here, whether the fault is the manager’s for suppressing problems the organization’s for refusing to hear the problems that person raised, the end result is the same: abject failure. And again, the people who worked hard on the project (and may well have done some very good work in the process) will be looking for the door.

Either way, no one involved ends up in a good place.

As Shirky points out, it is a cultural failing that lets things get to the point where someone feels the need to make this statement, and if that happens the organization has failed, even if the project doesn’t.

Fragemented Discussion

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Earlier today, James sent me an email noting that he had commented both on Andy’s recent blog post and on the link to Andy’s blog post on USV.com. He had commented on the same piece of writing in two different places — and both places even use the same commenting engine — but the two discussions were entirely separate. You might participate in one without ever knowing that the other existed.

That led James to suggest that it would be cool if all instances of the discussion around a blog post shared the same comments. I thought I remembered some experiments being done around that a few years ago, but I couldn’t dig up any examples, so I did the next best thing: I did a (really, really hacky) experiment myself.

If all goes well, by the time that you’re reading this the comments on my own blog (where this is posted) and on USV.com (where I’m posting a link) will be in sync with one another.

Does that make for a better discussion? Does it help or hurt the community feeling around discussion? I don’t know. Feel free to discuss.

On the Absence of Input

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There was a little flurry of press out of SXSW yesterday, covering Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley’s statement that the service has the potential to act like the “Marauder’s Map” of Harry Potter fame: “There is enough data that we should be able to make that Harry Potter map and give it to everyone in the room.” 

With the amount of data Foursquare gets, and the increasing number of data sources available to them, Crowley thinks (and I largely agree) that Foursquare can start to act as a living map of the people and places that matter to us.

But this also reminded me that Crowley had actually made a similar reference nearly four years ago, crediting Kevin Marks for the the proposition that “we need to not be building the Marauder’s Map and instead be building the Weasley Clock.”

I remembered that particular tweet because it kicked off a chain of thought for me that ended up in writing a blog post entitled Magic, Technology, Synthesis. My reading of the statement pretty much comes down to this snippet from the post:

You’ve got one artifact [the Marauder's Map] that shows you a constantly changing, basically unfiltered stream of what’s happening right now, and another [the Weasley Clock] that reduces a similar complex set of real-time data into a simple form that is immediately accessible and useful in a specific context. The clock offers a reduction—an obvious, almost ridiculous oversimplification—of what is offered by the map, but that reduction is what makes the clock useful. The clock tells you basically, not exactly, what’s going on.

I still think that this “reduced” view offered by the Weasley Clock is potentially more interesting, and more valuable, than the live map approach (though also much more difficult to build), but that’s not what I’m here to write about, exactly.

Part of the point that Crowley was making was that Foursquare has a crapload of data coming in. And it’s being piled on top of several more craploads already accumulated. And that got me to thinking: one of the things that you get when you get a big data set is the gaps, the ellipses. You start to see where things aren’t, as well as where they are.

And that opens up a whole new world. Possibly a creepy and unsettling world, but it’s one that’s worth considering.

If Foursquare sees that a friend and I have been checking in around the same neighborhoods, but not checking in together, why doesn’t it sugest that we meet? Or if I haven’t checked in recently with someone who was once a frequent companion, propose a reunion.

And the model can be extended further. What if Path, or Facebook, noticed that one of my friends hasn’t posted anything to the service in a couple of weeks and called that to my attention? If that person is really a friend, maybe I should check in on them, right? Maybe they’re just busy, but maybe they’re at a point where a text or a phone call would help them.

This introduces some social complexity, of course: maybe I’m not checking in with Alice or Bob because we broke up, and I don’t really want a reminder of that fact. But the fact that these social services have massive data sets that point to what isn’t happening, as well as what is, feels like an area worth exploring.

Services like Timehop mine  your personal history, giving you reminders or where — or who — you were in the past, why aren’t more social services looking more closely at the people who are a part of that past?

At this point I suspect that we have more than enough dots to start filling in some of the gaps between them, sketching out the lines that are personal relationships. If this software really is social, after all, it’s those lines that matter.