The Illicit Appeal Of Anonymous Apps

There is a child out there in the world who was only conceived because their mother got carried away by a particularly raunchy scene in Game of Thrones and pretended that her husband was Jon Snow. How do I know this? The lady in question posted her secret to Whisper, the anonymous sharing app which launched in 2012 and has since gained considerable traction.

Beyond raunchy confessions (and boy, are there a lot of them), what’s really refreshing about apps like Whisper, Secret and Yik Yak is that they encourage people to share the parts of their lives that they aren’t necessarily happiest with. Rather than broadcasting a carefully curated, “fabulous” existence on Facebook or Instagram with the intent of provoking social lifestyle envy, users are instead baring their souls and posting confessions which would have devastating effects on their career and personal lives if they weren’t anonymous.

Whisper CEO Michael Heyward is proud of the anonymous community he is building, which he describes as a “Wikipedia of human emotion.” Rather than editing themselves online for fear of embarrassment, Heyward believes that posting content anonymously liberates users and encourages them to in turn be more supportive of others: “People use our communication medium to share secrets, meet new people and get advice like, ‘I’m 24 and I’m going bald – what do I do?’”

Whisper is now partnering with media organisations to feed its anonymous confessions into broadcast content. Viral site BuzzFeed was a natural fit, and now Whisper is teaming up with the network Fusion (a joint venture by Univision and Disney/ABC) to leverage what editor in chief Neetzan Zimmerman calls “the pulse of what young people are feeling and sharing, whether it be a social movement, pop culture trends, news event, personal struggle or daily musing.”

Whisper posts are listed by location. One of Fusion’s first Whisper-inspired stories used this functionality to examine the number of posts which came from areas with colleges known for their party culture, and led to a conversation about how young people think and talk about drugs.

It’s not just Whisper that is enjoying the new hunger for anonymity. The anonymous tech gossip app Secret, which harvests your phone contacts to bring you unsigned titbits from your immediate circle, has just raised $25 million USD in venture capital with the aim of becoming a fully-fledged social network. The comment threads on the platform have become more of a focus than the actual secrets being shared, and CEO David Byttow is keen to capitalise on this: “It’s not just [the secret] – it’s actually all the discussion around it,” he says. “We have content that would fill hundreds of thousands of books should someone really want to read the dialogues. I think surfacing that is really valuable.”

“Facebook Login has been our top requested feature, for good reason,” a recent Secret blog post states. “Our community members want more friend content in their stream, beyond simply the contacts from their phone. Facebook Login gives any user the option to (completely anonymously) connect Secret to Facebook and populate your stream with Facebook friends.”

The danger here (and part of the inherent appeal) is that Secret becomes a guessing game, and the urge to deduce who posted certain tantalising pieces of information rather defeats the purpose of an anonymous app in the first place. But protecting the identities of its users is Secret’s highest priority, and Byttow maintains that they don’t even store public Facebook names.

Beside the secret identities of these apps’ fervent user bases, the second biggest mystery is how companies like Secret and Whisper intend to make money. Traditional models are rendered somewhat redundant when you have access to little or even no information about a person, other than perhaps their location.

“There are no specific plans to roll out ads in the future,” says Heyward, “although we test things regularly. We’ve tested things in the past around user-generated payments, ads, native units… So far every time we’ve done a test the results have exceeded our expectations by at least 100 times… We’re constantly focused on providing a great experience for our users.”

Whisper reportedly receives an average of 6 billion page views per month. Is this trend more than just a flash in the mobile pan, then? Says Heyward: “Anonymity is here to stay and I think we’re really well positioned to own anonymity.”

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