Unmasked: The Secret Life of Pretty Much Everybody


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.