Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. Writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published, will spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
At present, Facebook has around 1.3 billion monthly active users. It is, without qualification, the world’s dominant social network. It’s also quite personal, and signing up without an honest-to-goodness identity is partly difficult and partly useless. After all, who in their right mind is going to add you as a friend with a name like “H. Iding Quietly”?
Some would argue that true identity has been a vital part of social media’s overall growth. There’s poignancy in knowing that there are real people, with real connections and real emotions, behind each status update. In many ways, connecting real names enables us to feel as if we’re having IRL experiences with a screen. But new apps and faceless social networks are raising the question of whether we’ve vastly overstated just how important genuine identity is.
Within the past year, two anonymous social apps have not only launched, but they’ve secured millions of dollars in funding while racking up thousands of new users per day. Whisper is currently home to six million monthly active users, and while Secret keeps that figure — ahem — close to the chest, it’s worth noting that a $100 million valuation doesn’t happen without a huge user base. Whisper and Secret share the same general ideology: there should be a fast, easily digestible social network where no one can find out who anyone else actually is.
The trick in keeping folks coming back is in the registration process. When you sign up, you give these apps access to your phone’s contact list. From there, it finds any and all users who have already registered for the service and adds them to your follower list. So, from the word go, the stream of steamy updates — all of which are anonymized — are coming from your direct friends, or friends of those friends. The intrigue is, apparently, quite seductive.
New apps and faceless social networks are raising the question of whether we’ve vastly overstated just how important genuine identity is.
One reason these nameless gathering grounds are booming is the increased scrutiny placed on non-anonymous networks. In December of last year, Justine Sacco was very publicly fired from her job due to a tweet that was seen as insensitive by the public. Or, at least, by enough complete strangers on Twitter, who unleashed intense amounts of hate in the direction of her (now former) employer. No judge, no jury — say one wrong thing on Twitter, and your entire life can be thrown into turmoil. Hence, the allure of a place where your name is nowhere to be found.
Appealing though that may be, though, there are still (major) dangers and problems. As anonymous networks continue to expand, we’ve a few tips on what to expect, how to glean the most from them, and how to stay out of trouble.
What’s an Anonymous Network?
Imagine if Instagram and Twitter merged, but instead of usernames, you were simply shown photos and status updates with “Friend” or “Friend of Friend” as the byline. That, in a nutshell, is what to expect after joining Secret or Whisper. You can usually sort updates by location to get something of a clue as to what’s being said nearby, but both services make it fairly tough for you to discover who is actually behind each post. Moreover, commenting is anonymous, which oftentimes leads to discourse that’s free of fluff and full of unbridled opinion.
What’s to Gain by Listening In?
In general, you’ll get a mixture of a few things. First of all, there are plenty of posts that relate in some way to love, lust, or outright fornication. It’s fairly depressing to see how many of those connected to you will talk aimlessly about sex when they’re unburdened of a name. Second, there are actual secrets to be had. Over the past few months, a number of hard-hitting news stories have broken on anonymous apps. Shortly before Nike drastically downsized its FuelBand team, an insider proclaimed as much would happen on Secret. Name removal mixed with raw emotion can lead typically tight-lipped people to tell all sorts of stories about their employer. Third, you’ll find invitations to meet. This is nearly as creepy as it sounds and requires a bit of trust and a lot of courage. It’s becoming more common for anonymous users to post an update that asks for commenters to share secrets of their own. The original poster then selects the ones that he or she finds most appealing, and then forwards invites — usually to a dinner. It’s a strange, if not eerie way to meet new people, but as you might expect, the real-life conversation that occurs during these dinners is far reaching and brutally honest.
What’s the Catch?
While the veil of anonymity is delightful in theory, it’s important to remember that it’s only a veil. When you sign up for an anonymous network, you give the network itself access to your phone number as well as your contact list. It hasn’t happened yet, but if Target can be hacked, there’s a chance that your favorite digital masquerade party can be as well. If you make a habit of posting updates that could get you fired, divorced, or smacked down, there’s always the sliver of a chance that those could one day be linked back to you.
Thankfully, there are a lot of safeguards in place. In the case of Secret, posts are saved separately from user profiles, and according to a Wall Street Journal report, “Decoding who created a specific post requires the company’s two founders to both unlock virtual keys at the same time.” As for Whisper? It hasn’t made public what security measures it has in place, though the aforementioned report does confirm that “sensitive information” is encrypted as it traverses the Internet’s pipelines.
Beyond all of the circumstantial warnings, there are very real legal implications to be wary of. Both Secret and Whisper reserve the right to essentially flip on you and hand over everything — including links that prove certain posts were generated by you — if doing so will keep them out of court. Secret retains the right to divulge whatever it wants about its users “in response to a request for information if we believe disclosure is in accordance with any applicable law, regulation or legal process, or as otherwise required by any applicable law, rule or regulation.” That’s a blanket way of saying that your so-called anonymous updates will be pinned on you if the proper pressures mount.
This all clearly means that anonymous networks should be viewed as entertainment. They’re great for laughs, the occasional scoop, and for expanding your friend network if you’ve somehow managed to stop meeting folks the old-fashioned way. But as with Twitter and Facebook, it’s important to use Whisper and Secret with caution. The Internet never forgets, and words can have consequences regardless of identifiers.