Thursday, April 19, 2018
Business

Anonymity apps growing in popularity

NEW YORK — At a time when Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are pushing people to put forward their most polished, put-together selves, a new class of mobile applications aims for a bit more honesty.

Among the latest is Secret, created by two former Google engineers who were looking for a way to let people deliver genuine feedback to co-workers. With the app, friends and friends of friends can share their deepest and darkest thoughts, along with gossip, criticism and even plans to propose marriage, under a cloak of near-anonymity.

"This idea that you have to craft this perfect image online," says Secret co-founder Chrys Bader-Wechseler, 30. "That's stressful. We want to remove that stress."

Secret joins a handful of apps such as Confide, Whisper and Yik Yak that have become popular — and in some cases, notorious — in recent months by offering users a way to communicate while cloaking their identities.

In the past decade, anonymity has been fading. As Facebook soared to dominate online social networks, the trend shifted toward profiles, real names and the melding of online and offline identities. But as people's online social circles grew from friends to parents, grandparents, in-laws, colleagues and bosses, many became increasingly reluctant to share as openly as they once did.

"People go on Facebook and say they just got engaged. But what you don't see is, 'I am going to propose today,' " says Secret co-founder and CEO David Byttow, 32.

Launched in 2012, Whisper is especially popular with teenagers and 20-somethings. Yik Yak, released late last year, made headlines recently when a California high school went into lockdown after someone used the app to post an anonymous bomb threat.

Although anonymity apps are being criticized as platforms for bullying, supporters say they can be tools for preventing mischief. They also have a cathartic value for some users.

On Secret, users are told when a friend has posted a secret — they just don't know which friend. Whisper, meanwhile, does not tell users how, or if, they are connected to a person posting.

"I am a closeted gay guy and the sheer number of hot fraternity guys on campus is a special kind of hell," read a recent post on Whisper.

Whisper CEO Michael Heyward, 26, says the company's app does not allow people to "use anonymity to hurt anyone else." Users, for instance, can't put proper names into posts unless the names belong to public figures. So Justin Bieber is okay. Justin from Spanish class is not.

Secret tries to add a layer of accountability to anonymous posts by showing users' secrets to their friends and allowing only friends, or friends of friends, to comment on each shared post. Secret says it ensures security by encrypting posts and without uploading contact information to its servers. The app also offers a panic button of sorts, called "unlink my posts." When a user clicks it, any link between them and all previous secrets they have posted is removed.

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