Online anonymity breeds trolls…
45 day old Secret app recently closed a $8.6 million round of financing from a number of top tier venture capitalist, including Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian of Initialized Capital, MG Siegler of Google Ventures, Bing Gordon and Megan Quinn of KPCB, Chris Howard and Brad Silverberg of Fuel Capital, Vivi Nevo, SV Angel, Ashton Kutcher of A-Grade Investments, David Sacks, Bill Lee, Pete Cashmore among others.
The basic principle behind this application is that everything you post anonymously is immediately visible to your first degree network, and when someone from your first degree network likes your post it becomes visible to everyone in that persons first degree network and the cycle continues through as many degrees of separation as the chain of likes take it through. The greater the number of likes your post accrues, the wider its reach on the Secret network.
I found this investment really interesting (to put things nicely). Before I begin, I must admit that the underlying concept is actually brilliant.
Last week I deleted this application from my phone because I was not entirely at peace with it. I could literally post anything I wanted, true or false, without any repercussions, and the more ridiculous my post, the higher the probability of that post spreading across the Secret community. Some might immediately see inherent problems with this system.
To think of this in real world terms, imagine you performed an experiment where all your friends were blindfolded so that you could anonymously whisper the following two unique pieces of information to all of them:
Jane is a nice girl who secretly walks around San Fransisco at night feeding homeless people
Hannah has hooked up with all the boys in the Pike fraternity
If each person was then expected to perform the exact same ‘blindfold and whisper’ experiment on all their friends, which of the two stories above do you think would be most likely to be retold anonymously?
I suspect the latter would spread much faster and would be distributed more widely than the former via anonymous networks, as it generally makes for a much juicier story than Jane’s acts of kindness and at the same time no one would ideally want to be directly associated with its spread. The vast majority of people who speak through anonymous platform do so because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions.
Of course Secret’s primary intended use case revolves around sharing secrets about oneself, but the fact that a slanderous use case is prominent within the application and that little or no repercussions exist for such slander is very worrisome. People like @msuster have tried flagging libelous posts about themselves/others/companies, but such post rarely (if ever) get taken down.
Notice how the image below says ‘Friend’, this means that someone from within Mark Suster’s first degree network actually posted this about him. For all we know, whoever posted this probably shares jokes and pretends to be buddies with him in real life.
Many of the concepts behind secret are not entirely new, another application known as Whisper does a similar thing, CollegeACB and Juicy Campus fueled the spread of destructive rumors about college students for years, and even as far back as 1990, Apple’s Advanced Technology Group tried a similar concept with Rumor Monger.
Rumor Monger was conceived as an experiment in distributed, light-weight communication by Apple’s Harry Chesley, and its test audience was Apple’s internal employees. Employees could distribute information (with the option of anonymity) via a decentralized network that spread the information to other people within the network.
Rumor Monger became very popular within Apple and 99% of the Rumors sent were sent with the optional ‘Anonymous’ feature.
In Chesley’s words:
The results were simultaneously fascinating, hilarious, ugly, mundane, profound, and contentious. The messages included company rumors, bad jokes, personal insults, new product ideas, and an inexplicably long discussion of haggis …
… It seems some rumors were being posted that could be interpreted as being libelous, and management felt Apple might be held responsible. A meeting was called to determine how to deal with the problem …
… I was told that it had been irresponsible of me to release dangerous technology like this with no way to control it …
When you give people power to spread content anonymously, libelous & slanderous content is sure to spread really fast, often much faster than productive & positive content, Apple learned this 24 years ago with Rumor Monger.
Hopefully the founders of the Secret app can figure out a way to make people gossip responsibly (if such a concept actually exists) and post anonymously without posting libelous content. This is going to be a very hard problem … Just for perspective have you ever looked at the comments section in articles/videos that have anonymous commenting options? Or 4Chan threads? The citizens of the world wide web rarely ever play nice when given the power of anonymity.
Here are some posts that have become popular enough on the Secret app to make the news (Valleywag, Techcrunch etc.), of course all/most of them are unverifiable and most probably false, but gossip sells…
I will probably not be re-downloading the application anytime soon, as I am not really hot on the online gossip scene. When one absorbs gossip online repeatedly and at a high frequency, I believe that the line between facts and rumors become very blurry in one’s mind.
Anonymous applications like this generally start off innocently as fun boredom killers, then slander begins, lives get ruined, people get hurt, unfortunately sometimes tragedy occurs, and in the end everyone who participated is filled with guilt and regret.
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