After more than eleven years running the anarchic online community he founded in his New York bedroom at the age of 15, Christopher “Moot” Poole says he is stepping aside from day-to-day management of the site
Secret, the anonymous messaging app that captured the attention of Silicon Valley in the months after its January launch, is struggling.
Almost a year later, download rates at home and abroad have plummeted. Its web visitor and mobile app user numbers are so low Comscore doesn’t track them. Stories about it have dropped off, taking the app from the top percentile of Google’s search rankings in the United States to the bottom half. And a key early employee has quietly departed.
It’s not looking good for the company, which has raised $35 million in venture funding in its short lifespan. Data suggests that around the time Secret tamped down on cyberbullying, its user growth slowed. After criticism about harassment on the app, the company started making changes to the way it moderated posts. It introduced new restrictions — like no posting names — and its US iOS rankings dovetailed at exactly that time.
It looks like Secret will be majorly overhauling its product soon. The company did not want to share more information, but CEO and co-founder David Byttow told me “dramatic” changes would be coming next week.
Secret has been working on this update for a long time. Byttow told me back in October the company was evolving the product “heavily” so that it will be more “addictive,” “contextual,” and “useful.” It sounds like a turning point for Secret.
A change is certainly in order.
What would you do to reboot Secret?
I’m a Secret power user, on the app nearly every day despite the fact that it started to fall out of fashion. From the beginning I was entranced by the posts, little nuggets of vulnerability, vitriol, and humor.
But in the last few months, posts have dropped off dramatically. I used to be able to scroll infinitely through new secrets, if not from my circle than from general users. For Secret newbies: The app connects to your social media accounts and phone contacts to show you posts from your network.
I have 119 friends on the app, a number that hasn’t changed for the past few months. Lately I’m lucky if there’s a few new posts at all by the end of the day.
Statistics from App Annie bear that out. After its coming-out party in January, Secret hovered on iOS App Store download charts for a few months. But once it started to crack down on harassment in late August, it plummeted, disappearing entirely for U.S. iOS apps overall (App Annie doesn’t track below #1,500). The last day it appears – September 13th – it was ranked #1,401.
It’s still on the charts in its specific category, social networking, where it appears as #173. But that’s in stark contrast to the nosebleed rankings of its competitors – Whisper at #27 and Yik Yak at #9. I couldn’t find the Google Play statistics, but will update this once I hear from App Annie.
App Annie’s data isn’t rock solid because it’s based on download rankings. Most apps will eventually flatline after reaching the majority of their market. But in the case of Secret, the company hasn’t exactly become a mainstream success. And competitors Whisper and Yik Yak have only grown in the ranks.
The trash talk allure
With the company keeping quiet, it’s not entirely clear what has happened. We can look to the problems plaguing Secret over the last few months though. The privacy concerns, as demonstrated by Fortune’s Secret experiment and Wired’s white hat hacker story, may have scared off people. The introduction of polls – which Secret has since quietly revoked – might have annoyed people enough to avoid using it.
There are also sustainability questions with confessional apps. Outside of the teenage group, are secrets a big enough draw to keep users around long term? People told me they grew bored of the content after awhile. The novelty of anonymity wore off.
I spoke with a source familiar with the company, who asked not to be named, who said the tension with the app’s development was around how much control Secret should exert on content. “For someone who wants to build a successful company and sell it for a couple hundred million dollars, it’s all about growth,” this person told me. “Obviously [gossip] creates engagement and people like it, but is it right?”
A few kids at a high school would download it, and within a week most of the school would be on it. Teens would take pictures of other people, and commenters would discuss their weight or appearance. The virality of the “friend” model, while great for expansion, was fertile grounds for harassment. Secret’s founders were nervous to tamp down on such content though, lest their growth slow.
It looks like they may have been right.
Eventually the cyberbullying issue caught up to Secret via a media firestorm. It instituted new restrictions — like forbidding the use of real names and uploading of camera images — on the app at the end of August, right around the time its download rankings tanked. Another long time Secret user told me he loved the gossip, and when it disappeared he stopped using the app. It might have been a cesspool, but that was its value for many.
The troubles continue
Secret’s biggest markets were abroad – it blew up in Israel and Brazil, among other places. But then the Brazilian government banned the app in August because of cyberbullying concerns. Just like in the U.S., App Annie data shows Secret captured people’s interest initially abroad, causing a spike in downloads, but couldn’t sustain it.
The company’s head of communications, long time tech PR professional SJ Sacchetti, was recruited in May to help manage media relationships. Having formerly run communications for anonymous site Formspring.me, Sacchetti had the experience to help Secret navigate the PR minefields of confessional applications.
But four months after joining, Sacchetti quietly left Secret, around the time of the Brazil ban. When I asked her about it last month, she wouldn’t give me details as to why, aside from saying that although she originally thought she’d be at Secret a long time, it wasn’t “a culture fit.”
In the months that followed, Secret released Ping – an app created from a company hackathon. Ping was a notification system for things like weather and Twitter trends, completely unrelated from the core Secret app itself. Understandably, it led people to wonder, “Should we read anything into how things are going with Secret with this release?”
Government obstruction and privacy issues can all be overcome with the strength of a product (see: Uber). The real problem of Secret might be that anonymity, at least in the “confessional” form, isn’t quite the consumer draw people thought it would be. It’s hard to know if Secret’s growth would have continued if it hadn’t taken a stand against cyberbullying.
In this market, a conscience may be bad for business.
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