PostSecret founder says anonymity apps are soulless and not that anonymous

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 11, 2014

From The News Desk

The tide is turning fast on the anonymity apps. After raising hundreds of millions in venture capital at some pretty high prices -- a reported $100 million valuation in the case of Secret -- serious doubts about bullying, and the companies' attitude to it, are coming to the fore.

I've written before about how Secret's founders have not responded well to the bullying potential of their platform.  Today's story centers on the other big player: Whisper.

This past weekend, Fortune published a Q&A with Frank Warren, the founder of PostSecret-- the snailmail-based project that inspired many of these apps. In the interview, Warren explains that he built a similar app before Whisper or Secret, but closed it down despite huge traffic because the negativity, attacks and bullying were out of control.

I've never been a fan of Secret, not least because it has promoted itself as a way to spread lies about companies and founders in Silicon Valley. But early on, I did download Whisper and enjoyed it for a few days. I stopped reading it after my feed was taken over by very sexual posts from seemingly insecure young women. Because no women were named, I didn't feel this was as damaging as the things I've seen on Secret -- but Warren brings up concerns that these women could be bait for sexual predators.

Commenting on Warren's interview, Whisper vigorously defends its protections to keep anonymous users truly anonymous, and the company certainly responded in a far more mature and thoughtful way than Secret's David Byttow did a few weeks ago. Some may view Warren's comments as sour grapes-- after all, these companies are basically the same thing as the PostSecret app and have raked in millions. Or even regret that he helped unleash something on the world that has the capacity to do so much damage.

Still, whether it's all baseless and exaggerated or not, my point stands that these apps are just waiting for an ambitious attorney general to seize onto them.

Go read the entire conversation now.

Investors in both Whisper and Secret have said that algorithms and human curation can stop these apps degenerating into a cesspool of defamation, shepherding the conversation in the right direction, and highlighting the types of content that were benign and charmingly confessional. We've doubted whether Secret even has that intention. But Warren brings up even deeper doubts that you simply can't steer an anonymous community in any direction, even one like PostSecret which had a long history of curation so that it focused on the positive, the confessional and inspirational.

Whisper has a big opportunity to step up as the leader with a conscience here. So far it hasn't blundered as much as Secret at the PR game, but it needs to do more to differentiate itself. And soon.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]