A woman with short blonde hair walks up to the table, her eyes darting from one person to the next, taking in the scene. She’s not sure she should have come, and she still has time to bail. Pinned to her right shoulder is a blue sailboat — an icon instantly recognizable to any users of the anonymous sharing app Secret. She carries a big bouquet of pink carnations.
Sounds like something out of a wholesome 1950s rom com, right?
“Is this the Secret kink meet up?” she asks.
It’s not a rom com.
I stuck my hand out and introduced myself.
“Wait…We’re using our real names?”
Secret– an app that doesn’t even rank in the AppStore’s top 100 — has become the new Quora of Silicon Valley. That is to say, something that only the techy echochamber seems to be obsessed with. And let’s be honest: The reason is mostly because the marginalized can spread rumors about the powerful without fear of reprisal.
But can that really become a business?
* * * *
Believe it or not this bizarre little gathering in a kink bar in San Francisco– about as far as you can get from the center of tech power– may actually hold the keys to Secret becoming something real.
To be fair, Secret isn’t just for pissed off entrepreneurs. There’s not only the person talking shit about his boss, proclaiming his love for toe sucking, or confiding he just eloped. But there’s the idea that, thanks to the app’s connection to your “social graph,” that person could be your colleague, your friend or even your dad.
While it’s resonance has hardly been like Snapchat or Whatsapp, the company has seen some deep engagement. Seventy-five percent of users with more than five friends on the app come back everyday. Ninety percent of the users that engage in a thread, either by posting their own Secret or commenting on another person’s, come back that same week, according to the company.
The company touts those numbers to explain why it’s more than just another incarnation of “Juicy Campus.” The hope? A semi-lame marketing message that Secret isn’t just for unsubstantiated gossip, it’s a new way of more deeply communicating. “We’re trying to help people connect on a deeper, more emotional level,” says Secret’s co-founder Chrys Bader.
“There’s plenty of tools now for broadcasting what you’re thinking to your friends — Snapchat, SMS,” he continues. “But nothing addresses this undercurrent of communication that potentially never happens. The things you type into Twitter or Facebook and then delete. The thought you’re too insecure to share. It’s this whole layer, and we see this becoming a permanent fixture in social networking.”
Some might argue those things just shouldn’t be uttered. Some like Marc Andreessen, who went on a wild recent Twitter rant about these apps. He wouldn’t name names but it was pretty obvious he was talking about Secret, its Southern California rival Whisper and the like.
He noted that “such experiments start out as naughty fun, end with broken hearts and ruined lives,” continuing that “such systems will always get users.”
He suggested fellow investors avoid funding such endeavors, fellow entrepreneurs avoid creating them, and fellow engineers avoid building them, saying people always regret playing a role in these when they go too far.
Indeed, much of the recent wave of the Web has been about curbing these excesses. Not everyone is comfortable with the pendulum swing back to the pre-social graph shady side of the Web– no matter how it’s dressed up by PR departments as something great for humanity.
In the early days, when people talked about “going online” like they were headed to another country, the Internet was a place where people could play with their identity. In Multi User Dungeons and on Internet Relay Chat they would pretend to be different genders, ages, occupations, races, and sometimes even species.
But that all changed with the advent of social media. Friendster, LinkedIn, and Facebook ushered in a wave of real names and real world connections dominating the Web. Experimenting with new forms of identity online became less and less possible.
Now that we are all connected to everyone we’ve ever known with every moment of our lives recorded, cataloged, datamined and advertised against, the pendulum has swung back to the ephemeral, the nameless, and the unaccountable. People crave a safe place to be unknown.
But here’s the twist. As this clandestine kink meeting showed, the temptation of connection frequently outweighs the teetertotter balance between safe anonymity and longing to be accepted. It’s possible that the Secret founders aren’t full of shit. It’s possible these apps are more than just a flash-in-the-pan reaction against Facebook. It’s possible that there might actually be some middle ground the Internet is forging between creepy Second Life existences where animated penises and girls with fox tails roam the virtual badlands and a place where every embarrassing thing we do and say is captured forever.
Which is why a group of users, all of whom were interested in San Francisco’s kink community, decided to get together and drop their anonymity for one evening. And it’s also why none of them was quite sure of the ground rules.
This won’t be for everyone. It takes a particular level of reckless bravery to meet up with strangers through an app built solely for the purpose of anonymously sharing secrets. Particularly since those strangers could very well turn out to be your existing real-life friends or acquaintances.
* * * *
Indeed the meeting was a bit of a let down. No one made out, no one brought whips. It was mostly just…. sweetly awkward.
The handful of users who ventured out for the SF Secret kink meetup, wearing pink flowers tucked behind earlobes and in shirt pockets to identify themselves, were far more normal than one might expect from a group of people bonding over a predilection for bondage. The meeting more closely resembled a Tupperware party than a clandestine kinky rendezvous.
After the tension was broken and introductions made, everyone went around the circle and shared why they felt compelled to connect with Secret strangers offline. One woman claimed she couldn’t resist the opportunity for adventure. Another confessed that following a recent breakup she was trying to “ease back into” the kink community.
A third participant — the sole man of the group — confided he has trouble finding a romantic partner who shares his kink predilections. “It’s hard to introduce in relationships because it’s binary,” he said. “You either call someone a whore or you don’t. It’s not like, ‘Oh sorry I read the room wrong.’”
There are signs that Secret gets this and similarly sees it as its path to wider legitimacy. There are rumors that Secret itself has a private chat feature in the works, something that could allow people to connect but still stay anonymous. Others have beat the company to it.
Anonyfish was built in a February weekend by Philip Kaplan, a serial entrepreneur and creator of the infamous dot com bust website “Fucked Company” and later semi-fucked company Blippy. He realized that Secret users were making brand new email accounts just to anonymously message each other.
All over Secret people post their Anonyfish usernames, inviting others to reach out and connect with them through the encrypted service. A lot of the connections are about sex hookups, but others range from commiserating over broken hearts to talking about cancer diagnoses.
“Anonymous social networks are a great way for people to explore things that they wouldn’t otherwise want to announce publicly,” Kaplan says.
Anonyfish has taken off with other anonymous social networks too, like Yik Yak, Whisper, Reddit, and message boards.
If anonymity is going to be more than a pendulum swing, it’s gonna need a twist. And real life may just be it.
[Image by Brad Jonas for Pando]