Pando

Whisper's Michael Heyward on the fragile, fragmented nature of identity in the social age

By David Holmes , written on September 11, 2014

From The News Desk

Ever since society evolved beyond hunting and gathering, and humans began looking inward, we've asked ourselves: "Who am I?"

Following the physical and emotional devastation of two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, this question became harder than ever to answer. Humans were suddenly unmoored by the comforting truths and prescribed ways of living they were taught by priests and parents. Writers like Albert Camus and Roland Topor wrote about the fragile nature of identity in post-war Europe, while in America many gave themselves over to the new gods of commercialism.

Now, with the rise of the Internet and ubiquitous social networks, the world is entering a new era of anxiety over identity. The faces we share with the world, filtered through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, often bear little resemblance to one another and to the true self within. This concept was elucidated perfectly by the show "Black Mirror," in which a deceased man is built back together using personality cues derived from his social media activity, creating a "person" who, while superficially authentic, is a complete stranger to his grieving spouse. Sarah Lacy describes these digital social identities as "the press release version of your life."

This is all a highfalutin way of describing the value CEO Michael Heyward thinks his app Whisper can provide. It theoretically offers a safe space to share pieces of our true selves which may be too dark for Facebook's network of close friends and family, too personal for Twitter's chaotic community of snark, and too interesting to win friends and influence people on LinkedIn.

"One of the inhibitors of a lot of these identity-based social networks is not actually the identity piece, but that it's more of this concept of a profile, and that everything that you're adding to it is appending into one place," Heyward told Lacy at PandoMonthly in Los Angeles. "You cannot be captain of the football team and really like the television show 'Glee.' You can't be like the world's best dad and also have some weird tattoo obsession. I think people are actually many things."

So why an anonymity app? Based on what we've seen from Whisper's rival Secret and its casually sociopathic CEO, these apps can easily lend themselves to cyberbullying which in turn can lead to psychological torment and self-harm. Lacy posits that having our digital identities fragmented across various social networks is a small price to pay to avoid the more unseemly aspects of anonymous apps -- Instagram is for baby pictures, Twitter is for analyzing current events, Facebook is a little bit of both. Sure, people have shameful secrets that they can't share on those networks, but does that really justify an entire ecosystem of apps and all the risks that go along with it?

Heyward says the use cases go beyond shame and embarrassment.

"This morning I read a Whisper from a young female who said she is here illegally. She was brought here by her parents at, I think she said 6 years old, and every night she literally has full-on nightmares over the fact that she may get deported tomorrow." That's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's also not something that can be shared publicly.

To hear Heyward tell it, Whisper is designed to be a platform that fills the holes of our digital identities that can't be serviced by non-anonymous networks. I'm not sure it will solve society's identity issues once and for all. But if Camus' titular Stranger had just talked about his mother's death on Whisper, maybe he never would have killed that Arab.