Baring Our Souls on Secret

Why we’re sharing our vulnerable selves with strangers

Secret, a new app designed for anonymously sharing secrets among closed networks of friends, has been making a splash in the headlines lately. The idea of a space devoted to confessing our deepest secrets, hopes and fears is captivating. Although it was not always this way, many if not most of our online communications and transactions are now tied to our real names in order to profile us, market to us and, in some cases, surveil us. As a result, we’re engaging in increasingly careful identity sculpting in the social environments we inhabit.

Some of us steer our online behavior toward gathering as many Likes and favorites as possible. Others feel pressure to post only positive, preferably jealousy-inducing updates in order to keep up with the parade of sing-songingly upbeat posts in our Facebook News Feeds. If what’s on our minds is not so cheerful, some of us will take the vaguebooking/subtweetingroute, venting in a roundabout way about something or someone that is bothering us without naming names in order to avoid confrontation.

Our transparent-by-design social world has, ironically, put a chill on online self-expression. Accordingly, the thinking behind apps like Secret is that people are more likely to have honest conversations in an anonymous venue. What I saw upon my first login to the app certainly indicated that might be the case. Posts this vulnerable and poignant are few and far between on my Facebook feed:

I was so moved when I saw this secret that I wished it had originated from within my circle so I could have responded with a note of empathy. (Secret only allows you to comment on a post if it originated from within your network of friends or from a location geographically close to you.) The thought that this man had lost his baby and was struggling alone, broken-hearted, prompted an empathic ping. I also appreciated the chance to hear a male perspective that isn’t often voiced in public due to our stifling cultural expectations of how men and women are supposed to communicate their feelings (or not).

The outpouring of encouragement and empathy among strangers on Secret can be beautiful to watch and participate in. You’ll see support for people battling drug addiction or others recalling how they first came out to their parents. It’s common to see the OP (original poster) thank everyone for the support. But this phenomenon begs the question of why we can’t get close enough to one another in real life to share our deepest secrets, hopes and fears with one another. Above all, it’s good to have an outlet if we need one. At the end of the day, though, intimacy and true human connection are best experienced in person with those we love and trust.

So why aren’t we sharing that intimacy with the people in our real life circles? I’d argue that the overflow of public social sharing followed by a development toward filtering our social expression has created a distancing effect, seemingly creating closeness while isolating us because we are not, in fact, making connections on the basis of our true selves. We can sense when others post something that isn’t genuine and experience this phenomenon en masse like a glitch in the Matrix. It’s why social media content that’s authentic, to use the buzzword of the day, gets the best engagement. It reflects our yearning for real rather than simulated connection.

One thing I appreciate about Secret is that it replicates some of the older Internet culture I miss from the MOOs and MUDs I used to frequent in the early 1990s. Those text-only virtual worlds were popular among Internet users before the rise of the World Wide Web and the graphical Internet as we know it today. On a MUD, you had the benefit of a forum that was anonymous by default (unless you chose to use your real name as your handle, which practically no one did) and you could decide to reveal your identity to someone if you found a kindred spirit in that virtual world.

Something about virtual spaces from that era was more lyrical, too, as they had a focus on text and wordplay out of necessity since there were no images. Secret takes advantage of the beautiful, clean design elements seen on sites like Pinterest and allows you to pair a compelling image with your post. Some of the images used as backgrounds are striking, but the words and the messages they convey ultimately take center stage. Still, it’s worth noting that our current avenues for expression blend imagery and text in a way that their predecessors could not. There’s power in the imagery we use to communicate with one another, and that in itself is intriguing to observe.

Of course, not all interactions online are pleasant. Some people use the cover of anonymity to act inappropriately and harass or abuse others. This happened on MUDs and their text-only cousins on the early Internet too, so in a sense it’s unfortunately nothing new. Secret has come under fire for allegedly fostering a space where the denizens of Silicon Valley can sling rumors and accusations against people and companies by name without being held accountable. That’s not great behavior, but it’s no different from someone creating an anonymous Tumblr and defaming a VC? The opportunity has always been there and a new app like Secret doesn’t change that fact.

Anonymous spaces can have positive benefits. People who find themselves marginalized in the real world can voice their frustrations and seek advice on Secret. A female founder recently posted this secret about an inappropriate sexual advance from a VC who tried to leverage his position of power for a date with her in this post:

All women have had an uncomfortable and unsettling encounter like this in their lives and have struggled with the question of whether or not to call the person in question on his behavior. When a very overt power dynamic is involved, as it is in this case with a VC making an advance on a startup founder, it’s very risky to speak up. Finding a safe space to share experiences like these with others who’ve been there in order to determine how to respond can be a good option.

When considering the risk involved in sharing our most personal and private thoughts, a question arises: Is our data really anonymous or private in any forum? Secret claims thatsecurity is a top priority, stating that there is no way for users of the app to trace posts back to their originators. But Secret provides no greater assurances beyond the standard ones often given by social networks that your personally identifying information will be safe, private and inaccessible to third parties. And while they state that they take broad security measures to defend your data from theft by hackers, perfect network security is enormously difficult to achieve and maintain. As with any networked service, we ultimately have to make our own individual risk assessment about how likely it is that our information on Secret or any other site could end up in unauthorized hands.

One likely reason people are choosing Secret for their confessional posts, besides the cloak of anonymity, is because they don’t trust the Facebooks and Googles of the world with their data. The more sensitive that data it is, the less they trust Facebook to treat it in their best interest. That’s with good cause: Mark Zuckerberg is on the record crassly making fun of people for trusting him with their personal information and Facebook has been caught doing all kinds of things with our data, even analyzing the posts we start to write but never send. Practices and norms around the use of our personal information are massively unregulated at the moment, and as we are aware, all bets are off as to how our data will be used and to whose benefit—whether or not we consent. As a result, we censor ourselves. But that expressive impulse has to find an outlet and for some people, that outlet is Secret.

This return to anonymous communities is fascinating. In one sense, it feels like everything old is new again. But there’s a reason for it. We yearn for true connection with one another, conducted safely and on our own terms. Some of us will use the cover of privacy to sling mud or rumors, but others will find a safe haven for airing deeply felt concerns or desires. As with most technologies, the app itself is agnostic in this regard—it’s what we choose to do with it that’s interesting and open to either praise or criticism.