These Failed Apps Discovered a Hidden Rule of the Web
Anonymous apps like Secret and Yik Yak set out to make social media more authentic. Here’s why that failed.
By Miranda Katz
Mar 10 2017
Four days after the election of Donald Trump, the former CEO of a failed anonymous social media app tweeted: “Secret V2 is coming. It’s too important for it to not exist.” About a year and a half earlier, Secret had shut down, overwhelmed by an epidemic of cyberbullying and competition from Yik Yak. But as America woke up to the fact that polling and data had failed to capture the political leanings of the country, the power of the unspoken was more apparent than ever. Shell-shocked Democrats were viewing their more right-leaning friends and family with newly skeptical eyes, wondering if they had kept quiet on mainstream social media for fear of being attacked.
Meanwhile on Reddit, a community of diehard Trump supporters had swelled to some 270,000 subscribers—now nearly 380,000—sharing memes, discussing their fervor for Trump and dislike of Clinton, and, yes, penning some loosely coded bigotry under the shelter of anonymity. There, legions of Trump supporters felt free to express their opinions. But a liberal voter who didn’t know to visit /r/The_Donald might never see those points of view. That kind of disconnect raised a question in the mind of Secret’s former CEO, David Byttow: Would the world look notably different to us if the people in our social networks didn’t feel like they had to censor their thoughts?
The original Secret app, which launched in early 2014, allowed users to post anonymously and view anonymous posts from their friends, in what Byttow envisioned as the “anti-Facebook, where you can actually say shit that represents your most authentic self, as opposed to your best self.”
At their height, Secret and similarly anonymous apps like Yik Yak and Whisper were hailed as the future of social media — an antidote to the real-name controversies on Facebook and the highly polished, hyper-curated look of Instagram. Anonymous apps harkened back to the bare-bones message boards that brought early internet culture to life, but reinvented them for the social network age. Yet despite a collective $200 million in funding, anonymity has remained a kind of kryptonite for social apps. The reason is simple: An online social network serves one purpose, to connect people. Without names attached, people’s words become either mean — or meaningless.
When they first showed up, identity-free social media apps were a viral hit—including on my own college campus. For most of my time at college, anonymous discussion was limited to the “anonymous confessions board,” a rudimentary forum moderated by, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, a single student. The ACB wasn’t wildly popular, and it carried a certain stigma; it was the kind of site you’d delete from your “top sites” to avoid getting looks from your neighbors in the library. Once, I used it to find a lost coat.
Then in the fall of 2014, Yik Yak took off — and the ACB went quiet. Suddenly, it seemed like every student was on the app, filling it with snarky one-liners, observations, party promotions, and, at times, malicious gossip. My friends and I gleefully texted each other screenshots when one of our Yaks made it onto the “hot” page and earned hundreds of upvotes. It was the perfect procrastination tool — the ACB gone mainstream, and gussied up with a slick design. Yik Yak, of course, had even loftier ambitions, envisioning itself as the Twitter of the younger generation.
Meanwhile Secret exploded in its own right, gaining notoriety as a hub of insidery, Silicon Valley gossip — the kind of place where one might go to spread rumors of an Evernote acquisition, or discuss which startups use marijuana as an interview intimidation tactic. Secret and Yik Yak grew quickly, raising $35 million and $73.5 million respectively in their first seven months. They were highly addictive: Byttow says that to this day, people tell him they would compulsively delete and reinstall Secret, their desire to stop wasting hours on the app at war with their FOMO. He hoped to build Secret into a genuine rival to Instagram and Facebook, and for a time it seemed that his dream might come true: After scoring its first taste of virality in its birthplace of Silicon Valley, Secret went on to snag the #1 app store download spot in eight countries.