Secret: Is anonymity worth it if you’re invisible?

If you’re keeping up with news in Silicon Valley, have a heavy conscience or just enjoy buzzy apps, then you’ve probably downloaded the new iPhone (s AAPL) app Secret, which launched late last month. Meant as a judgment-free outlet for users to post their innermost thoughts (think a social version of PostSecret), Secret has become a hotbed of tech-related gossip. But when it comes to the mainstream, does the way that Secret operates have a chance of inhibiting its own growth? 

Here’s how secrets travel around Secret, according to the company’s post on Medium:

“We…believe great ideas should spread on their own merit. Whenever someone likes your post, it will spread to their friends. If their friends like it, it continues to reach even further. This is how ideas travel on Secret, just like the real world.”

In short, users with more connections and friends on Secret will have their secrets seen by more people, and will see more secrets in return. So, even when it’s anonymous and connection-less, the person with the most friends in their contacts will have an ostensibly better experience than someone with just a handful of friends:

Screenshots from the Secret app show how they pull in your contacts and why you can't pick your friends to follow.

Screenshots from the Secret app show how it pulls in your contacts and why you can’t pick your friends to follow.

Many of those who are publicly championing Secret — from TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler to 4chan founder Chris Poole — see the power in the anonymity. When you have dozens (or maybe even hundreds) of potential listeners in your audience, the choice to use Secret is a significant one. For those in the know, and in the right places, anonymity can bring the power to help others vent about their weighty secrets (or just spread gossip about VCs and CEOs). There are opportunities for meanness, vengeance, kindness and courage, because Secret means something as long as someone else is paying attention.
But for those whose contact book isn’t filled with Valley names, Secret can be an uneventful, inactive void. My own Secret feed includes gossip about Sarah Lacy and Dave Morin, alongside notes about pregnancies and musings that have earned enough buzz to be kicked in my direction — but the app updates relatively infrequently. I’d like more of my friends to use Secret, but do I really want to admit that I’m using it? Guilty pleasure aside, I feel a bit paranoid: why would I tell people to get Secret if it means admitting that I’m using it already? The whole point of anonymity is to remain anonymous, so the admission alone is enough to make me worry that someone would see my secrets and know they were from me.
Secret may empower those with strong digital social circles already in place, but its focus on anonymity diminishes the experience of users with less robust social groups. If you live in a place where Secret isn’t booming (at this point, it doesn’t stretch far beyond the Valley or New York City), or if your friends don’t use the app, Secret isn’t very valuable. Add in anonymity, and it’s easy to feel invisible. Even if you share a good secret, the app is set up to reward those who have enough visibility to earn likes and comments, which will, in turn, make posts more visible and open to conversation.
For some, anonymity is valuable. Those who are looking for gossip or social outreach may find a dearth of content unless they have friends who are willing to spill and share, but those just looking to quickly offload a burden or share a piece of information with no consequences might feel the invisibility suits them.
Screenshot from the Secret-Speak Freely

Screenshot from the Secret-Speak Freely

I believe that Secret’s sweet spot lies somewhere between the two. When I open the app, I don’t get as much content as I want — I know people are posting, I just can’t see the posts. Not knowing where the bulk of my content comes from (i.e., whether it’s from an equally anonymous friend’s share or is based on something more random like location) means I can’t figure out how to make my feed better. And I feel that until I network more in the real world and add more contacts to my phone book, I can’t change the content of my feed.
That does not mean the problems I see are unfixable. For example, the app could employ an anonymous friend or follow model, allowing users to make a connection anonymously and receive that person’s secrets and favorites. That still wouldn’t be perfect — it would require a user to encounter a worthwhile secret in the first place — but it would allow users to create better connections and participate in more secrets. The opportunity to connect with those whose secrets have resonated most seems like a simple thing to do without jeopardizing anonymity, and it would help balance the power between those with lots of connections and those with no Secret-sharers in sight.
Feature image courtesy of Thinkstock/Michele Piacquadio. Screenshots of Secret app from a Gigaom staffer who wishes to remain anonymous.