Q&A: Secret CEO David Byttow on runaway growth and the ethics of anonymity

Anonymous apps are on the rise these days, and perhaps the buzziest of those is iPhone app (s aapl) Secret. Launched just two months ago, the secret-sharing app — which connects to your contact list and serves a feed of confessions from friends and those nearby — has raised both $10 million in funding and a lot of questions about the ethics surrounding anonymity.
Last week I spoke with co-founder and CEO David Byttow, who started the company after stints at Google (s goog) working on Google+ and Square, about the app’s direction, the ethics of privacy and Secret’s role in moderation. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity:
How is it going, now that Secret is two months in?
Our company has grown by about 600 percent. If you do the math, that works out to about 12 employees by the end of April.
We feel very confident that we’ve hit on something that people want, that people like to use. We’ve not even turned our attention whatsoever on growing users. I think the name of the game right now logistically is to grow the team. We want to stay lean.
A single secret, unlike a tweet or a Facebook update, actually has a much longer half-life than a normal post — somewhere between a blog post and a tweet. There are still secrets that are going strong that were created thirty days ago. It’s just that they’re spreading out in concentric circles. We never added time stamps, because I want every secret to feel almost timeless.
And those live on because of the comments?
It’s all about conversation. It’s as if you’re sitting at dinner with a bunch of friends and one of your friends goes, “Okay guys, let’s talk about this new movie.” They drop the topic down and then everyone discusses it. And it happens to be on TV too, so that other people can watch that discussion happen.

Do you think anyone would engage in personal discussions if they didn’t feel like anonymity was a huge factor? 
I think timing is everything, but we don’t always know why that is. We’re going to have to deconstruct it later. Twitter and Facebook and identity-based platforms really hit their stride in the last few years, [but] there is definitely a use case for anonymity. I mean, we see this everywhere: If you want honest feedback or you want someone to give their honest opinion or be authentic, you create a channel that allows them to separate their identity from their opinion.
[But] it’s difficult to facilitate anonymity and also create accountability and responsibility.
Secret_CommentsWhen you have an anonymous app it’s really easy to be cruel. Do you have responsibility to maintain order?
To live in a society, we have to create rules.
I think it is on us to… help steer the community in the direction we think that it will be the most useful to people. And I don’t think being cutting or being hurtful or tasteless is productive for society. There’s a fine line between slander and whistle-blowing. But we’re not in the business of dictating true and false, and we have to let people make up and form their own opinions.
But we will take responsibility for what the product becomes. And we work every day, we build new tools and invest in our both front-end and back-end to fight that — even though [the team] has been two or three people the last few months.
How do you make sure that secrets don’t just disappear into the ether and never get seen by anyone?
There are a lot of posts that don’t really get seen. This product is not Whisper. There is no public feed where anyone can go on and post and it can be dug out and found.
The choice we made is that people need to know you. It’s about connecting with people you know and people they know. Having said that, we are always looking at that content, and there’s some really good stuff that gets shared.
It’s your classic cold-start problem of a social network: the first people to come on are by themselves. It’s very important that the people coming on that are producing really good content get a chance to be seen.
If you were to visualize people based on phone graph connections and contacts, how connected we are is insane. I hope one day to do some publication or research — anonymized, of course — about how connected we are. So I’m not too worried, as we grow and we allow more people to see it, that communities won’t join up or be connected. It’s about being patient.
Secret deals in heavy stuff. How do you feel about the fact that Secret has a Share feature, which kicks secrets out to Twitter and Facebook? Who owns secrets on Secret?
The reason we created Share was not to draw attention to any one person or their tweet. The purpose of Share is to share knowledge. What we saw was that people were taking screenshots of secrets and sharing them out on Twitter, and I thought that did a disservice to the secret itself and to the author, because it lost the context.
We wanted to give them an easy way to share what they were already doing, but do it with full attribution, full conversation, and full context within our platform such that if they do share out that way and the author chooses to delete it, it’s gone.
I just have one broad question left…
No, although I think that’s interesting because that’s what Whisper is doing right now, essentially monetizing through BuzzFeed.
I don’t know how they’re monetizing, but that’s an interesting thing I should mention as well. I do squint at the kinds of things that could be shared on Buzzfeed — those personal thoughts and feelings. But I’m sure they’re very cognizant of that and trying to walk that fine line between interesting gossip and personal, deep, confessions.
Do you think that we’re entering an age where our idea of what anonymous means will change?
I always balk at being called an anonymous app, because we do give context about where it came from. We have so many facets to ourselves, and online just doesn’t do a good job of representing that. There’s us right now in the mode of this interview, and I say certain things, you say certain things. We’re not out drinking and having fun, we’re not in an intimate situation with our friends.
With Google+, we tried to capture it with Circles, but it was just too literal and too much work. [Secret] took that whole concept — all the facets of you and your personality and identity — and just inverted it so it’s about what you say.
Something like Secret needs to exist. We need to be able to not only express what we’re thinking and feeling, but also have a place to go to read what’s going on in the world around us, and what people are really thinking and feeling. It adds more truth to the world, and that’s what moves us forward, I think. It’s on us to turn it into something useful for the world.
Featured photo by Heather Kennedy/Getty Images