What’s Behind the Gossip-App Backlash?

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Photo: Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

In the past week or so, an intense debate has opened up among Silicon Valley's chattering class, centered on anonymous social apps like Whisper and Secret. Are these apps – which let users anonymously share secrets with their contact lists and the world at large – turning into consequence-free cesspools of hate and bullying? Or are they providing a safe space for truth-telling?

The proximate cause for the most recent wave of discussion is the story of Julie Ann Horvath, an engineer at Github who left the company and then, after a nasty thread about her appeared on Secret, decided to speak up with allegations about sexist treatment and intimidation by her colleagues. Github has apologized, Horvath has repeated her calls for two high-level resignations at the company and, as often happens in these circles, the conversation has moved from people to technology. Now people are wondering: Are apps like Secret and Whisper destroying society as we know it?

Whisper, which I wrote about in January, is a juggernaut serving up millions of page views a day, mostly to a teenage audience. Secret is a newer and smaller beast; it's currently ranked 864th among all apps in the U.S., according to AppAnnie, and its use is still mainly limited to the tech crowd. For the moment, the two apps contain very different types of content. (My Whisper feed is all high-school crushes and body-image issues; on my Secret feed, confessions of start-up ennui and San Francisco group sex predominate.)

Marc Andreessen, the well-known investor and techno-ruminator, is no fan of these apps. He didn't name Secret or Whisper specifically in his 12-part Twitter soliloquy last weekend, but it's clear what he was talking about:

(Undisclosed by Andreessen, but perhaps worth noting, is that his firm has invested in Github.)

Mark Suster, an L.A.-based venture capitalist, is also on the anti-gossip warpath. Like Andreessen, Suster's opposition has a personal tinge to it – he was an early target on Secret, with one post calling him a "fraud." Suster says that being a target on Secret isn't what's spurring his fight against it; rather, he fears what anonymous bullying could do to people who don't have a platform to defend themselves, and what it could mean for the tech scene more generally:

It’s gossip. Slander. Hateful. Hurtful. It’s everything the Valley claims to hate about LA but seemingly are falling over themselves at cocktail parties to check 5 times a night. We can do better.

These sound a lot like the original criticisms leveled at Valleywag, the Silicon Valley gossip blog. And it's notable that Andreessen and Suster first spoke up about gossip apps not when teens were bullied on it, but when they themselves were targeted. But do they have a point?

Whisper and Secret are a much bigger problem for the secret-keepers of the tech industry than Valleywag ever will be. This isn't the rise of one blog posting unflattering things about tech moguls, it's the introduction of apps that allow anyone and everyone to play the rumor-monger. People who support the apps say that this access to anonymity flattens the process of information distribution, and gives a voice to the traditionally voiceless. People who don't support them say that they're petri dishes for slander and hate.

So far, neither app is living up to either pole of the hype. Whisper's claim to fame seems to be breaking a Gwyneth Paltrow infidelity rumor. Secret hasn't had a newsworthy moment so far, but it has produced some funny dead-ends for lead-chasing reporters. Both kinds of output have proven irresistible to investors – Whisper recently raised another huge round of funding, this one valuing the company at $200 million, and Secret just raised its own $8.6 million round.

My own views on gossip apps fall somewhere in the middle of the boosters and the detractors. I think that anonymity is one of the building blocks of internet culture and an enormous asset in some cases, and will remain with us as long as technology allows it. I also know that unchecked anonymity has enabled some horrific behavior on the internet. (Ask a woman who's been harassed, or a teen who's been bullied.)

I concede that it is possible both that:

a) Tech bigwigs like Andreessen and Suster are taking a stand against gossip apps mostly because they and their friends are being maligned on those apps, and

b) They're right anyway.

Andreessen is right that technologists can shape their tools to incentivize good uses of anonymity (sharing of sensitive personal information, empowering whistleblowers) while discouraging abuse. But the problem with his theory is that it will always be at odds with user demand. Lots of people don't want feel-good, anodyne content when they open apps like Secret and Whisper. We love gossip – the juicier and more transgressive, the better. It's why Us Weekly has a higher circulation than The Economist, and why Twitter accounts like @exmediaman gather thousands of followers overnight despite the absence of fact-checkers.

Austin Hill thinks the solution could be for apps like Secret and Whisper to implement "a strong cryptographic identity systems based on non-real identity," which would give some accountability even while allowing users to remain anonymous. The example would be Bitcoin, a protocol in which users are assigned unique cryptographic I.D.s, which are linked to every transaction they conduct. These I.D.s don't contain real names, but they are consistent and follow the user in the blockchain. Implementing something similar for Whisper and Secret would, Hill says, enable moderators to clean up their apps:

The app and the community could auto-magically filter out those users with negative reputations creating a social negative feedback system whereby the community could split amongst those who like to read trash (which I believe ends up being a small percentage if the community is nurtured properly) and those who enjoy some of the more positive uses of the app.

There's a worthy discussion to be had about how the makers of technology can make anonymous platforms work as disseminators of information while not giving harbor to harassers and bullies. And if the hand-wringing over Secret and Whisper furthers that conversation, it will be a good thing.

But the solution won't be found in new lines of code, because the problem is essentially a social and generational one. The single-identity era is giving way to a re-emergence of anonymity as one of the many modes in which people communicate online. The move to anonymity is being led by young people who have seen the performative, show-your-best-self internet created by platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and are rejecting it as too fake and curated to contain their truest thoughts and expressions. Their desire to cultivate online space for radical honesty will ensure that the web's anonymous underbelly continues to flourish, no matter how harmful the titans of tech think it is.