Anonymity is all the rage lately, and startups are duking it out for your secrets.
But secret-sharing apps — think Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak — have recently sparked debate among venture capitalists.
Investors like Marc Andreessen, Mark Suster, and Homebrew’s Hunter Walk have all chimed in about whether or not investors and product designers should be morally responsible for products that encourage negative behaviour.
“Of course there’s a moral responsibility,” PostSecret founder Frank Warren tells Business Insider. “VCs need to do due diligence on their investments. If the app is designed in a way that can be misused, that’s also a poor venture capital decision.”
PostSecret was the community art project for sharing secrets on the back of postcards. Warren launched a PostSecret app in 2011, but pulled it from the app store after only three months because there was too much abusive content.
Citing reports of rape and hurtful content, Warren argues that apps like Whisper and Secret are not safe environments. He thinks that anonymous messaging makes it too easy for people to prey on children.
“If I were in charge of Secret or Whisper, I would do a redesign or pull them immediately,” Warren says, just like he did with PostSecret.
But messaging is at the core of the Whisper experience, Whisper CEO Michael Heyward tells Business Insider.
“Messaging is what facilitates some of the most profound interactions on Whisper,” Heyward says. “It’s something we see every day. We don’t want to limit that type of interaction.”
Still, Whisper actively ensures that kids are not using the app. For one, Whisper sets a 17-years-old and over age restriction in the App Store — albeit an easy one to bypass. Whisper also monitors content for indications that someone is underage, Heyward says. Posts that include numbers like 12, 13, and 14 won’t go live. Whisper also reports content relating to molestation and rape to law enforcement.
Rumours in Silicon Valley
Secret, the anonymous app from two ex-Googlers seems to be tasked with a different problem: Silicon Valley rumours.
The idea behind Secret is to let you share anonymously with your friends. It’s kind of like secret-sharing app Whisper, but the difference is that all of the secrets are from your friends, or a friend of a friend.
At its best, investor Mark Suster recently said, apps like Whisper and Secret can be a place that offers support to people.
“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,” Suster writes. “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.”
Shortly after the app launched, it became home to a now-debunked rumour that Evernote is getting acquired, and that Secret is going to acquire Whisper.
More recently, Secret exploded with rumours and backbiting over Julie Ann Horvath, an engineer at Github who left the code-sharing company amid allegations of harassment. Comments on Secret were specific and personal, but it was impossible to tell whether they were being made by anyone credible.
Similarly, Y Combinator investor Paul Graham became the subject of a vicious set of Secret comments generated by a single tweet.
Moving forward, Secret plans to work hard to address some of the concerns about the app.
“We’re humbled by this debate and are proud to be leading the charge in addressing the issues they bring to bear,” Secret co-founder David Byttow told Business Insider via email.
When asked how he would do this, he quickly replied, “Hard work. :-)”
A more valuable platform for sharing secrets?
Startups Anonymous pegs itself as Secret but with standards. It’s a place for startup founders to share stories and ask questions anonymously.
“It drives me crazy with all the attention they’re [Secret, Whisper] getting,” Startups Anonymous founder Dana Severson tells Business Insider.
But especially Secret. That’s because Severson doesn’t think Secret is sustainable — because of the rumours.
Startups Anonymous is more sustainable, Severson argues, because it’s providing people answers to the questions they’re too scared to ask in public. There’s also no trolling on the site because they only approve well-written and useful content.
But as both Secret and Startups Anonymous grow, the two startups will likely find themselves going after different audiences.
Startups Anonymous will always be about startups. But if Secret reaches mass adoption, people from different industries will join and dilute the Silicon Valley-focused content.
Investing in anonymity
Secret and Whisper have both received a healthy amount of funding. Secret has raised $US10 million and Whisper has raised $US54 million. Startups Anonymous is entirely bootstrapped.
As Walk previously noted, moral issues should affect investment decisions but investors should not solely focus on the negative consequences. So should investors be responsible for the poisonous culture secret-sharing apps create?
Heyward echoes Walk’s sentiments with a car analogy:
“Just because there’s a possibility you could get in a car crash doesn’t mean you’re never going to ride in a car again,” Heyward says. “Does that mean you’re not going to do anything because there’s a possibility bad things can happen? No. I think that’s ridiculous.”