Investors have to stop trying to justify the lies and libel of Secret
In the last few months, I’ve spoken to two groups of people about Secret.
The first group are investors who I respect very much who have either invested in Secret or tried to. Each time they’ve tried to justify their investment by explaining how it’s actually a good thing that there’s a service with the sole goal of allowing people to be totally unaccountable for what they say publicly.
The second—larger – group consists major CEOs and investors in the Valley who are disgusted and disappointed that Secret has been funded to the tune of some $36 million.
Aside from [disclosure: Pando investor] Marc Andreessen, none of that second group has spoken publicly about how morally bankrupt Secret is, and how anyone who invested in it is supporting something indefensible.
So allow me.
First, let’s break down the usual justifications for why Secret isn’t a horrible thing:
It’s a rare new trove of brand new content!
Everyone starts by saying they don’t really see things about people on the app. Instead they see sweet and sometimes creepy confessional messages. Without exception they then pull out their phones to prove this. There then follows a stream of bizarre stranger confessions about feeling trapped in a marriage or being sick of their job.
The bull case is that this is a whole new world of user generated content that couldn’t be created in a non-mobile, non-social graph, non-anonymous world. Ok great. But the reason a content business is interesting is because of ads. And if people were squeamish about paying CPMs to advertise on MySpace pages, they’re gonna be even more squeamish about advertising next to whatever could be on Secret.
Beyond that, let’s all acknowledge that the semi-confessional content is simply not very interesting. And if it were, there’s already an app for that: Whisper.
The social graph!
The justification of what Secret has that Whisper doesn’t is the titillation of knowing these people confessing bizarre things are in your network. Fine. But let’s not pretend our list of Facebook friends is some carefully constructed list that only represents the people we know well and care about. Anyone you’ve ever met at a conference is on there. And Secret allows you to see friends-of-friends. That’s basically the whole fucking Internet at this point.
That’s simply not what’s driving usage, at least in conversations I have. The truth we all know is these weird, sweet-but-who-cares confessions aren’t all that is on the site.
The real crowd-pleasing stuff is the gossip and rumors about people close to our networks. Amongst the people I’ve spoken to, those rumors tend to be about people and companies in the Valley. I assume other users see gossip about their work colleagues or school friends.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The Valley gossip is why most people in our industry downloaded the app and still can’t look away. A 50-year old VC in the Valley doesn’t give a shit how an unnamed dude they friended on Facebook once to be polite is feeling about his belly fat today.
The argument even boosters make is that, yes, Secret is bad but it isn't all bad. That in and of itself isn't a terrible argument. Indeed the Web world is full of tradeoffs. MySpace connected friends and helped people discover new music, but also enabled some pedophiles. Craigslist gave us a way better engine to find anything from a couch to a job to an apartment, but also enabled some serial killers. Facebook has run roughshod over all of our privacy, and we continually forgive it.
The key here isn’t that Web services have to be perfect, that we don’t forgive some bad behavior creeping in. The key is the good those sites do has to overwhelmingly outweigh the bad. I don’t see how bizarre confessionals of thousands of people on Facebook and all of their friends do that.
Oh but they have algorithms!
People close to the company insist the founders take all of this potential for bad very seriously, and that’s why they are working hard to make sure bullying comments aren’t on the site. I’m told “secrets” containing words like “ho-bag” are flagged as are many comments with people’s names in it, and reviewed by a combination of code and real people.
Great! But again, that doesn’t come close to addressing Secret’s ability to do serious damage in people’s lives. Context is everything when you are talking about someone’s life and reputation. For instance, if I knew a friend – or enemy -- was away on a business trip and I wanted to mess with him, I could post a secret about seeing him in a San Francisco hotel lobby. Instant strife with no accountability or blow back to me.
Here's a real-world example: Last week, someone apparently posted on Secret that I was trying to sell Pando to (of all companies) AOL. This, according to the Secret post, was because I wanted to start a new company that wasn’t about journalism. This despite the fact that Pando has never had a conversation with anyone about buying the company, and if we ever did it sure as hell wouldn’t be AOL. Also, the idea that I’d want to do something other than journalism is just ridiculous. I’ve said many, many times that this is all I want to do for the rest of my career.
But it got weirder: Next to the main “Secret” were comments supporting it, anonymously commenting things like “Oh, yes, Sarah told me this this week.”
Lucky for me, there were no repercussions to the lie. Anyone who knows anything about Pando – or me – would quickly dismiss it because it’s so far from what I’ve ever said about the company. In any case, far worse things are said about me on a daily basis on Twitter; so it’s easy to brush off.
But if Pando was a company in trouble or if we had been in the middle of raising a funding round, that lie could have been hugely damaging. We’ve heard countless stories of “Secrets” being planted by rivals looking to fuck over a startup.
Here’s a “secret” I shouldn’t have to explain to Secret: No one says anything anonymously about a particular person or company that’s nice and agenda free. That’s what Twitter (and real life) is for. Unless the algorithm flags out anything about a specific person, it will fail to combat bullying, lies, and agendas. And we all know if Secret did that, a ton of people would uninstall it.
My solution to Secret has been not to download it, and (except in this post), to shrug when someone tells me of something hurtful or blatantly made up about me or Pando that they’ve read on it.
Why then does it bother me so much?
Because, while I hate the lies and bullshit and hate that’s posted about me online every day, I realize I made that choice by doing a very public job like this.
Most people discussed on Secret didn’t make that choice. Supporting, and investing in, apps that force everyone to be in the public eye is just plain wrong. Put another way: Secret makes the bar for spreading lies about people lower even than sending a tip to a gossip blog. Things will be published on Secret that even the most odious gossip site wouldn’t touch. Because when your byline is on something—even if you are a hack—there is some modicum of professional pride, somewhere deep inside that (hopefully) stops you from peddling a 100% lie.
If Secret continues to grow with everyone trying to profit off of its popularity willfully justifying and ignoring the social cost, there will be Secret suicides. As a community, we will regret this. It will make the Craigslist killer and the Airbnb meth head-gate scandals look like nothing.
I’m stunned that I seem to be an outlier when it comes to this point of view. I know this rant will not win me friends with many sources and friends who are tied to this company. But I don't feel right only having this conversation in private any more.
I remember four years ago, a company called “Unvarnished” launched with a goal of doing much the same thing, only it had a more clear and honest purpose: To combat the glad handing of professional endorsements on LinkedIn by allowing you to leave anonymous professional feedback. Unlike Secret, you could argue there’s a benefit to this in the world to something like that: That employers really do want unvarnished truth of someone they are hiring and social pressure makes that hard. But it was way outweighed by the obvious massive license it gave to people torpedoing one another’s careers.
I was still working at TechCrunch at the time and I remember the day when they came in to pitch Michael Arrington. He was horrified and ordered the reporter on the story to refer to it as a “clean and well lighted place for defamation.” Fortunately for the world, the company went under. But that’s partially because others were outraged, and Unvarnished didn’t have the support and endless justifications that Secret has.
Sadly, the Valley has changed since then. Hits in the consumer space are so rare and so huge when they do hit that there's palpable paranoia about missing the next thing an investor doesn't "get" and constantly chasing that teen audience investors know they can't relate to.
But, ladies and gentlemen, when a 2010 era Michael Arrington can muster more horror at the greed in Silicon Valley than the current blogosphere can, we should all be very, very concerned.