Over the weekend, investor Marc Andreessen took to Twitter to debate the ethics of apps that let you share anonymous content.
Andreessen never explicitly named specific apps and stressed that he’s not referring to any one company. But the three most popular apps in this space are Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak.
“There are other systems in past & present designed to encourage negative behaviour, tearing people down, making fellow souls sad,” Andreessen tweeted. “Such experiments start out as naughty fun, end with broken hearts and ruined lives. In the end everyone regrets participating in them,” he wrote in a follow-up tweet.
Homebrew’s Hunter Walk also chimed in, saying that moral issues should affect investment choices, but that investors should not solely focus on the potential negative consequences.
Walk navigates this issue by asking himself, “does this company create both value AND merit?” Value is a sustainable, highly profitable business which rewards the team, partners and investors who bet on it. Merit is fuzzier but I’ve generally reduced it to, “is the world a better place because this product exists?” Not “can this product be abused and utilized for negative purposes” but rather what is its primary use case, primary reason for being and can the team sustain that true north over time?”
Not all of the content on apps like Whisper and Secret are malicious. Whisper CEO Michael Heyward pointed to how a girl on Whisper helped save someone’s life by replying to his or her self-harm post.
Secret also has some supportive posts on it, investor Mark Suster writes on his blog.
“At its best apps like Secret or Whisper can be a place where people can reach out to the community for support,” Suster writes. “They could be a place to find solace when you’re lonely or problem solve when you don’t know who else to turn to. But for now Secret is not that. It’s something all together different. It is … Perez Hilton. TMZ. Joan Rivers. Geraldo Rivera. All rolled up into one anonymous bitchy session.”
Suster went as far to call it “gossip,” “slander,” “hateful,” and “hurtful.”
Apps like Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak are reminiscent of Post Secret, the mail-based community art project that let users anonymously send in their secrets on the back of postcards. Ask.fm has also become polluted with anonymous online bullying, leading to several teen suicides.
PostSecret launched an iOS app in September 2011, but pulled it after only three months due to abusive content.
“Those memories are kind of bittersweet for me,” PostSecret founder Frank Warren told Business Insider last March, around the time Whisper really started gaining in popularity. “It had a short but brilliant life.”
For the three months the app was live, people created and shared millions of secrets. Just like Whisper, a lot of the stories were really moving and deep. But once inappropriate content started appearing on the app, Warren had to call it quits.
In order to prevent malicious content on the app, Secret recently launched a feature that warns people not to defame each other. Whisper, on the other hand, has a flagging feature for users to report inappropriate content.
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