When Neetzan Zimmerman, the king of viral content at Gawker Media, left to join the anonymous-sharing app Whisper, I have to confess that I wasn’t really that interested — at least from a journalistic point of view. Like its competitor Secret, I assumed that Whisper was just a collection of banal personal confessions and pseudo-insider info from Silicon Valley. But as I’ve watched as Whisper has continued to sign partnership deals with a number of media companies such as BuzzFeed and Fusion, I’ve come to believe there might actually be something worthwhile there.
One of the things that caught my eye was the uptick in Whisper usage in Iraq after the authorities there locked down Facebook and Twitter, in the aftermath of attacks by the militant group ISIS — which appears to be a fairly sophisticated user of social media. According to Zimmerman there was a spike in activity on the network following that move, with many users describing how the app had become a lifeline for sharing their views about what was happening in their country.
This reminded me a lot of how Twitter and Facebook were used during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and other countries, with the added benefit of being (theoretically at least) completely anonymous. Although Twitter is much more generous than Facebook in allowing pseudonyms, and therefore likely a better place for dissidents and other malcontents, Whisper provides what could be an even better space for speaking freely.
It’s not just Iraqis who can benefit from being able to speak and share anonymously, of course. Everyone from closeted gay teens to victims of spousal abuse and conscientious objectors of all kinds could make use of such a platform to share their views — which is one of the reasons why I’ve been such a strenuous supporter of anonymity and pseudonymity in places like Google Plus and blog comments, and such a big critic of Facebook’s desire to enforce “real” identities (although even it seems to be weakening on that front).
It seems pretty clear that Whisper — which reportedly raised $30 million in financing recently — has had this kind of usage in mind almost from the beginning, or at least since it hired Zimmerman as editor-in-chief (which I admit did get me wondering: why does a gossip app need an editor-in-chief?) And the company just added another editorial staffer with the hiring of Slade Sohmer, co-founder of a Brooklyn-based media startup called HyperVocal.
In a blog post on Medium, Sohmer talked about why he decided to join the startup, which he said is wrongly described as a “secret-sharing app” — and he said he was most interested in the journalistic applications of such a community:
“The app has been very effective in highlighting previously unseen social trends, giving voice to the nameless, allowing people to speak out without fear of reprisal or unfair social prejudice. There is legitimate actionable [and, yes, verifiable!] news value to much of what you see on Whisper.”
Whisper has already been involved with a number of pop-culture stories on BuzzFeed and Fusion, and was given credit for breaking a rumor about actress Gwyneth Paltrow having an affair. But that’s not what I find interesting about it: I’m more interested in how it can help reporters tell stories like the one about veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or how it can provide an outlet for users in Iraq and elsewhere to share stories we might never hear otherwise. Is it the future of journalism? Hardly. But it is kind of fascinating.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Michele Piacquadio