Anonymous apps may be troubling, but are they unethical? Secret defends its approach

Anonymity

If there’s one social trend that stands out from the last few years, it’s the explosion of anonymous apps and services like Secret and Whisper, and their lesser-known brethren — including Rumr, Yik Yak, BackChat and Burn Note. Much like an earlier generation of web services like Formspring, Juicy Campus and Ask.fm, this new breed has been criticized for enabling online bullying, and for playing a role in teen suicide. The tech blog Pando, for example, has kept up a drumbeat of posts arguing that Secret is unethical, and that by extension its founders and the VCs who invested are also lacking in ethics and/or morality.

The series started with a post by Pando founder Sarah Lacy, who said that “investors have to stop trying to justify the lies and libel of Secret” (the company closed a new $25-million round of financing several weeks ago). She referred to a group of investors who were “disgusted and disappointed” that the company had raised so much money, and predicted there would eventually be suicides linked to use of the service, and their deaths would be Secret’s responsibility.

Over the past few days, Pando has published no fewer than five posts about how reprehensible the app is, including one that argued co-founder David Byttow “doesn’t care if teenagers kill themselves, as long as they don’t cause a PR headache.” This was followed by one that said he was “too busy raising money to care” about teen suicides, because he didn’t respond to emails from someone trying to raise awareness about bullying. Subsequent posts have called the app “morally bankrupt,” and referred to “Secret’s sociopathic founder.”

Secret’s co-founder says they care deeply

Is all of this invective justified? It’s difficult to see how. Like many other social networks and services — including Facebook — Secret seems to be paying as much attention to these issues as anyone. It has guidelines for its users, it allows for posts to be flagged and it removes violent content and other behavior, and so on. It also makes it easy for users to refer those who might be suicidal to the Suicide Hotline and other resources that could help them.

In an interview with me on Tuesday, Byttow said that he and his co-founder take bullying and suicide extremely seriously, and have been doing their best to deal with the downsides of anonymity:

“Chrys and I care extremely deeply — we talked about these issues before we even launched. Anonymity is a really powerful thing, and with that power comes great responsibility. Figuring out these issues is the key to our long-term success, but it’s a hard, hard problem and we are doing the best we can.”

On Tuesday, the company said in a post that it believes in the value of anonymity because it allows for messages that are “raw, honest and human,” but that it recognizes there can be bad behavior, and that’s why it has clear guidelines for appropriate content and is “fully committed to doing everything we can to keep Secret a safe place.” Byttow said he and his team have been working with Facebook and others who have been through similar issues.

Anonymous apps do have a positive side

In fairness to Pando, they aren’t the only ones who have expressed concerns about anonymous apps and the impact they can have: venture investor Marc Andreessen wrote in a series of tweets earlier this year that such apps “encourage negative behavior, tearing people down, making fellow souls sad.” Andreessen argued that these kinds of apps will always get users, but “to what end, and at what cost?” Other prominent investors have also avoided the company.

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But some of Secret’s investors defend their decision to put money into the company, despite some of the bad behavior it enables. Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, for example, was one of the earliest investors in Secret, and wrote earlier this year about why he decided to invest: because he believes that anonymous communities allow people to say things, and in some cases important things, that they would never say if they had to attach their real names:

“Like all tools, this new publishing technology comes down to how we as individuals use it, but I’m heartened by every post I see that allows someone to share something about themselves that they’d never have been able to with their name attached… anonymity enables us to be truly honest, creative, and open.”

As more than one supporter has noted, anonymous apps may encourage trollish behavior, but they can also have a positive side as well: in fact, some users have credited the service with helping them when they were suicidal or depressed, and some argue that they allow for better conversation around highly politicized events like the bombings in Gaza. Like Ohanian, I’ve argued before that anonymity or pseudonymity has many benefits, and we should be very careful before we ban it.

The negative attention Secret has been getting isn’t that different from the criticisms that have been made in the past about Formspring or JuicyCampus or Ask.fm. In the end, if the service is serving a need for enough users, it will succeed, and if it doesn’t then it won’t. In the meantime, no one is forcing anyone to use it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Lofilolo

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