You have something you’d really like to get off your chest, don’t you? Something sordid and dark, something you can’t tell your family or friends for fear that they’ll get all judgy on you and give you the side eye at Christmas.
Your secret-keeping options so far
Before the Internet opened up a world full of strangers, you had different confessional options that were time consuming, more expensive, and possibly dangerous to your health.
You could confide in a trusted friend, who would hopefully swear to take your secret to the grave.
You could tamp that secret down to the lowest possible level of your psyche with the use of food, alcohol, or drugs.
You could keep your secret to yourself until your head exploded or you keeled over from a heart attack.
Or you could go to therapy, where you paid a professional secret keeper to listen to you confess your irrational fear of sustaining a life-threatening injury from the sharp edges of a Dorito.
But you’re a modern person with modern secrets. And today we have new ways to leave our dark secrets behind with just a few taps of our smartphones’ keyboards. And no one will ever find out that it was you, right?
So go on, type that confession right here on your phone. You’ll feel better once it’s off your chest. And it’s way cheaper than therapy.
No one will ever find out that you still sleep with a teddy bear. We swear. Well, we pretty much swear. Actually, we can’t really promise that at all.
That’s right. Remember how you gave the app your email address and possibly your location when you signed up?
Well, here comes Rule No. 1 of the Internet, my friends: If an app is popular, people will try to hack it.
Not to worry, Secret’s developer quickly corrected that particular bug, and others, but my point is that once you give an app your personal data, it doesn’t just disappear into the ether (neither do those Snapchat photos, kids. But that’s another column). People tend to forget that.
The seductiveness of “anonymity”
So why are so many people eager to just let it all hang out among millions of strangers?
Sharing secrets, anonymous or not, is nothing new. It’s been a thing since time began, and it starts in childhood. Passing anonymous love notes in school, sending unsigned letters to the editor of a newspaper and, on the Web, sending confessional postcards to the art project PostSecret are all ways in which we sensitive souls preserve our dignity. And, like anything else, confessing secrets anonymously online has the potential for both positive and negative outcomes.
Maybe it’s a way to satisfy our craving for acknowledgment when someone responds to our posts. (Until we check back in and see that no one has responded.)
Maybe it’s a way to move forward in our lives and ritually leave a difficult problem behind, like writing a confessional letter and then burning it. Except that in the case of these anonymous apps, we’re leaving it for millions of people to pore over on the Internet. Forever.
Maybe it’s a way in our electronically connected but socially disconnected world to find empathetic strangers who can help us heal the hurts we don’t dare confess to anyone in our real lives. As long as the cyberbullies don’t find us first.
Maybe it’s pushback against the relentless “my life is perfect” posts on Instagram and Facebook. In the Silicon Valley chapter of what I like to call the “Really Bad Idea Club,” Secret users are taking to the app to bitch about their companies and higher-ups. And, sometimes, they spill corporate news in the process. That can come back to bite them should their employers find out.
Whatever the reason, these apps are incredibly popular and enormously successful. Whisper just completed a new $36 million round of venture funding and, as of December 2013, had accumulated nearly 3 billion monthly page views. And that’s for not even keeping its promise of anonymity.
So be careful out there, Whisperers. As the Internet moves increasingly toward being like a huge, cyberspace masquerade ball, your secret may not be as secret as you thought.