Product & Design

Secret and the problem of authenticity

Secret was an iOS and Android app launched in 2014 that enabled anonymous conversations among friends, friends of friends and the wider public (if a particular post gained enough popularity, it spread). During its run, Secret introduced a geofenced feed as well as “Secret Dens” for schools and workplaces. Despite $35 million in funding and 15 million users, the app was shut down by its co-founder David Byttow earlier this year.

Secret was smart, and useful, in a number of ways. By making posting anonymous yet retaining the context of friendship or proximity, the app allowed people to be more open in sharing/discussing all types of things they normally wouldn't feel safe to—sex and drugs, gossip and rumors, and (most interestingly to me) vulnerabilities such as: fear before proposing marriage, sadness about a relationship falling apart, anxiety before a job interview, confusion about a health diagnosis—the list goes on...

Secret was a way to put in front of peers topics too loaded to raise otherwise. And it was fascinating to see what really goes on in people's minds and hearts.

In this way, the app spoke to one of the big problems we are continually trying to solve in our products: authenticity. How can people feel safe in showing their real selves rather than perform or project an image for social media? Everyone wants to be their true selves, but unfortunately most lack a safe space in which to do it. It's a very worthy problem to solve for humanity.

The flip side of anonymity, of course, is the cover it gives those who want to attack individuals, companies, etc., without substantiation or attribution. When he made the decision to shut down the app, Byttow said “I believe in honest, open communication and creative expression, and anonymity is a great device to achieve it. But it’s also the ultimate double-edged sword, which must be wielded with great respect and care.”

While implementation would have posed its own challenges, I would have instituted a supportive community/culture that had zero-tolerance for judgment or meanness. Anonymous or not, mean comments can make people feel unsafe and thus less likely to keep using the app. I'd guess this was one of the downfalls of Secret, but there was definitely a kernel of an idea there. Secret was an interesting first attempt and I'd love to see us and others make more attempts in the space.