This new app might just tempt you to spill your deepest secrets

19 June, 2014

“Who’s hooking up with whom at the firangi’s party tonight?”

This sentence flashed across my smartphone screen some weeks ago on the app Secret, which I had downloaded a few days earlier. The question being posed suggested that the person was someone with a prurient curiosity about other people’s lives, and the use of the word “firangi” (white foreigner), perhaps that he or she was Indian. Since posts on Secret are anonymous, I didn’t know who the author was. What I did know, however, was that there was not more than one degree of separation between me and this unnamed individual.

Secret is one of several anonymous social networks set up in the past few years, most with their headquarters in the US, that allow users to post thoughts, observations and rants anonymously. On others, such as Yik Yak and Whisper, your feed consists of the posts of other app users who are geographically close to you. Secret, however, ups the ante by tapping into your personal and professional life. While there is one stream titled “Explore,” with posts that are a mix of those from people in the vicinity and the city as well as popular posts from around the world, a more tantalising stream titled “Friends,” comprises posts from Secret users who are on your phone or email contact lists. Also on this stream are posts that those “Friends” have “hearted.”

To protect users’ identity, in order to view a friend’s posts you have to have at least three friends on Secret, which makes it less easy to trace the source of specific posts. Effectively, Secret is like Facebook as a masquerade ball, at the centre of which is a friction between anonymity and identity. This friction makes the app somewhat addictive. These are, after all, people you know, saying things they wouldn’t say publicly.

For “friends” of the person posting about the party, it was presumably apparent which party was being referred to.

“I am fairly certain it is too hot to hook up,” said one comment on the post.

“You knew one a/c is not working?” wrote the author in reply. Indeed, one wasn't.

While the promise of anonymous sharing might draw users to the app, identities may not be as protected as they imagine. Signing up for Secret gives the app access to your contacts, along with a whole host of other permissions, such as access to your location, your storage and your camera. This raises the same kind of privacy issues that emerged with other popular apps, such as Whisper and even WhatsApp. The co-founder and CEO of Secret, David Byttow, said that for their part, when they “connect you with people you know from your contacts” they “hash” the contact details first, locally, and so “actually don’t know their information.” But Secret, which operates under American law, admitted it would be compelled to reveal user details if they receive a subpoena or a court order, though you can unlink yourself from previous posts so that they cannot be traced to you. There are also concerns—as with apps like Whisper—about people hacking into Secret, as well as about whether the processes of privacy protection will be followed in the event of a takeover of the app.

Then there is the glaring question of whether such voyeuristic curiosity is a good thing at all. In describing it, the makers of the app focus on the fact that it encourages a level of freedom and honesty in expression that people wouldn’t otherwise have on other social media. “Speaking on a stage in front of a mixed audience of family, friends, and acquaintances makes it hard for us to be our most authentic selves,” a post on the app’s Medium page says. “As a result, we tend to share only our proudest moments in an attempt to portray our best selves. We filter too much, and with that, lose real human connection.”


That sounds uplifting and inspiring, but it’s not always the flavour of the posts you’re likely to encounter. I spend my time between Mumbai and Delhi, and so, presumably, have “friends” and “friends of friends” on Secret from both cities. Posts and discussions on my Friends stream include work gossip (“If not Rajdeep then who will be spearheading Focus TV?”; “How much exactly are journalists paid?”; “Top writer being hired by big media group”; “Freelancers, who hasn’t paid you?”) as well as personal confessions (“My best friend called me a slut ... can’t wait for her husband to cheat on her”; “I’m still with my girlfriend only because I haven’t found the time to break up with her”).

On my feed, it is often easy to tell which posts are from Delhi—such as one claiming that Mukul Rohatgi’s appointment as attorney general had been delayed because Narendra Modi didn’t like him—and which are from Mumbai: “Composer-director’s protégé, now director himself, needs only two drinks at any party before he starts bitching out his mentor.”

Is the gossip reliable? Not necessarily. It may be coming from friends, but it’s still gossip. Soon after Secret was launched, rumours of an acquisition of Evernote, circulated on the platform, proved to be false. Ryan Lawler, in his piece on the brouhaha, cited another Secret post he saw: “You could really fuck with journalists here.”

Many of the personal posts, both on my Friends and Explore streams, read like queries to an agony aunt. And surprisingly the replies, for the most part, are reasonable and polite. One post on premature ejaculation, for instance, has generated 23 sympathetic and involved replies from male and female users.


Secret allows you to flag posts that are “inappropriate” or “bullying,” or ones that suggest the poster may be about to commit an act of “self harm.” This helps. Post Secret, a website and app that was a precursor to the present crop of apps, had to shut down its app in January 2012, because their team was unable to moderate content that was “pornographic,” “gruesome” and “threatening.” One thread on Secret was about people on Twitter one would want to hook up with. It began harmlessly enough, with both male and female Twitter handles being cited, but descended into an obscene misogynist chat room, with one commenter insisting on putting out in not-so-pleasant detail what he wanted to do with his Twitter crush. I flagged the post as inappropriate and when I last looked for it, couldn’t find it.


Another Post Secret tale that may serve as a warning is a murder hoax in Chicago in September 2013. Someone put up a picture of a map, with an arrow indicating a spot, and the words: “I said she dumped me, but really, I dumped her (body).” A social media storm followed, and a search was undertaken, which turned up nothing. But the incident was an uncomfortable reminder of how the protection of anonymity can inspire dark instances of exhibitionism and attention-seeking, if not actual criminal tendencies.


As a preemptive measure, Secret doesn’t allow users to comment on posts that are not by “friends” or “friends of friends.” People beyond this circle can “heart” a post, or its comments, but can’t comment on the thread themselves. This means that if a conversation on your “Friends” stream turns abusive, the person responsible is probably someone you know, not a random troll. But problems can still arise, as in the case of Julie Ann Horvath, a designer and developer, who in March this year tweeted about a Secret post that she said was “attempting to assassinate my character” and that Secret had not taken down. The post in question accused Horvath of lying “about contributions,” “throwing hardworking co-workers under the bus” and spreading “vicious rumours.”


Such scenarios may well occur in India as the app grows in popularity here. Social media and its regulation are relatively nascent here, and it remains to be seen whether Secret’s insider model, and its flagging system, serves to contain the spread of potentially inflammatory posts. The app’s makers appear to view it as harmless, like a cross between an extended, anonymous gossip circle and a set of spontaneous support groups. In this, they encourage users to be charitable in their responses. So, when you click on the comment button of a post, three words appear, almost magically, in the space where you have to type: “Say something kind.”


Yet that’s not the point, is it? For any cultural space, anonymous or not, to evolve, its users have to learn how to be cutting, contrary, acerbic, wry—without being plain offensive or abusive. But, just up on Secret: “The lack of nasty yet deliciously witty and, yes, ‘appropriate’ commentary in our mainstream as well as social media has been felt for so long now, we can hardly rely on anonymity alone to present a cure.”