Whisper’s problem: It wants to be both an anonymous app and a news entity at the same time

Whisper, one of a number of anonymous social-networking apps, got more than it bargained for when it started working with The Guardian (please see disclosure below) earlier this year on the potential news applications of its anonymised database: the newspaper took the internal information it acquired via this partnership — including interviews with Whisper executives — and turned it into an exposé of the company’s privacy practices.

In a nutshell, the paper alleged that Whisper tracks its users and records their location, even if those users have opted out of location-based features. In some cases, the Guardian said, the company has handed that personal location information over to the federal authorities, including the Department of Defense.

For a company whose core value proposition is that it’s anonymous, it’s hard to imagine a more disastrous claim. The Guardian‘s story described how Whisper tracked the locations of military personnel, as well as employees of Disney and Yahoo, and was keeping tabs on a lobbyist in Washington D.C. who posts about his sex addiction. It also said a team run by editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmerman was “closely monitoring users it believes are potentially newsworthy.”

Guardian Whisper map

My colleague Carmel DeAmicis has more details on Zimmerman’s detailed response to the Guardian‘s charges, and there’s a point-by-point refutation of them that the company posted to Scribd, saying many of the claims are false or misleading. But the accusation about tracking “newsworthy individuals” gets at what I think is the heart of Whisper’s existential problem: namely, it wants to be a network for anonymous disclosure, but it also wants to be a news entity, or to partner with news entities, or both. And that involves an inherent conflict.

Is it private or is it news?

When Zimmerman, who used to be a writer for Gawker Media — where he specialized in posting “viral” content, and accounted for a massive proportion of the site’s overall traffic — was named the editor-in-chief of Whisper, I and a lot of others in the media sphere wondered what on earth an editorial job like that would involve. Why would an anonymous social network need an editor-in-chief?

Stories soon emerged that were based on Whisper posts, including some about the use of the network in countries like Syria and Iraq, where posting your thoughts about the war or the government under your real name can be fatal. Others dealt with the emotions expressed by people persecuted for being illegal immigrants, or for being gay.

As I wrote in a post at the time, this use of anonymity definitely gives journalists an insight into what might be happening in people’s lives, in a way that traditional reporting doesn’t — and to his credit, Zimmerman has always maintained that a Whisper post is just the beginning, and that traditional journalistic verification methods have to be applied before it becomes the basis of a story.

Iraq Whisper post

Anonymity vs. newsworthiness

In other stories, some written by Zimmerman and some by others, Whisper posts helped tell the story of military veterans and their struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and in one case it helped identify a man who was armed and surrounded by police, after a Whisper employee made contact with him via IM when it seemed like he was contemplating suicide.

Zimmerman said that while he doesn’t track people who might be newsworthy, the company does watch for potential news events like the police standoff, and may then look at a user’s past posts to try and determine whether they are genuine and/or worth reporting. But that’s a difficult line to walk

The Guardian itself used Whisper to write stories about what war veterans think of the military action against ISIS — although it said in its most recent piece that its relationship with the company is over. BuzzFeed, which has had a partnership with Whisper for some time, said it has put the relationship on hold until the company clarifies what its privacy policies are. The Fusion network also has a partnership with Whisper, although it’s not clear what the status of that is.

Although it has its downsides, anonymity can be a powerful force for truth — as I’ve argued before — and it has real value when it comes to giving us insight into human nature of all kinds. But can that power be mixed with the desire to report on those users and their thoughts, or to track them down and identify them in some way? I’m not convinced that it can, and I bet some Whisper users aren’t convinced either.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Thinkstock / Lofilolo as well as Whisper and The Guardian