Keep it secret

New Secret app offers escape from our transparent society

By Steve Outing

Privacy or transparency? Can’t we have both? …

This past week brought the public debut of Secret, a new iPhone app (Android coming later) that I predict will be a hit, because it comes at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to keep secrets or have any semblance of digital privacy. And while initially it looks like a fun and addictive time waster, I foresee some media uses for Secret. (More on that further down.)

Secret on Secret appSecret is a more profound app than you might realize at first glance.

Here’s what the app does:

  • Allows you to post a short, anonymous “secret” to other users of the Secret app who are in your phone’s Contacts. (You can also invite other people you know to start using Secret, and thus add them to the few who can see your secrets — and you’ll see theirs.)
  • Your secrets posted via the app are anonymous; there’s no way (the developers claim) that anyone can link you to a secret that you’ve posted.
  • Other Secret users who are in your contacts circle can like your secret and/or post a comment about it. Comments also are anonymous.
  • Once a secret that you post gets a like from anyone else, it then becomes visible to friends of any friend who liked your secret. So a popular secret (again, anonymous) potentially can grow and grow in audience size, the more it gets liked.
  • You can dress up your brief text secret with a photo pulled from your iPhone’s photo library, or with a photo you take in the moment, or just select a color background.

Regaining lost anonymity

If Secret truly is able to keep the secrets that we post untraceable back to our real identities, then it provides a wonderful, and well-timed, service.

Technology has enabled a sharing society, where for many of us, past notions of personal privacy have been given away in exchange for the convenience offered by digital services. The largest sharing players, Facebook and Google+, require that we link what we post to our real identities. The other big player, Twitter, allows us to use pseudonyms on our accounts so that tweets can be “anonymous.” I’ve failed to find statistics, but plenty of Twitter users reveal their real identities on their Twitter accounts, including me.

We’re definitely in the middle of a trend where anonymity is harder to achieve in our digital communication, and the likes of Facebook and Google are discouraging anonymity and encouraging us to or demanding that we take public ownership of the content we post online. Among news websites, the trend has moved toward requiring commenters to attach their real identity, which is a way of cutting back on the number of out-of-control, racist, and otherwise unacceptable comments, and silence trolls. (I have to admit, in general I like this trend.)

I think it’s fair to say that sharing personal information about yourself is something that’s not likely to go away. After all, the amount of personal data that we all share online and via our mobile devices — increasingly including our physical location — keeps growing year after year. Google, Facebook, and many other corporations know all about us. Obviously, so do governments — especially the U.S. federal government thanks to the cyber super powers of the National Security Agency, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Hurray for secrets!

In such an environment, the ability to share secrets with your friends and/or contact network is a luxury. Sure, you can share a secret with a friend privately, but if the communication is digital and has your name attached, then you can never be sure that it will stay private between the two of you forever.

The ability to share a secret with your digital friends as a group and get feedback or reactions, all anonymously, is something new. And refreshing in this age of let’s-share-everything.

For that reason, I think Secret has a good chance of hitting it big.

Media implications

Because I write about and consult for media, my instinct when I spot something new is to consider potential media and news uses. For instance, think about how useful Secret would be for media entities serving niche groups.

Here’s an example, though it would require some special coordination with Secret’s developers to make it happen:

  • Say, you publish a climbing magazine, website, and mobile apps, with an audience of tens of thousands of rock- and mountain-climbing enthusiasts and athletes.
  • Working in concert with Secret, you invite all of your readers and users to download the Secret app and sign up for or add a special account or private group that allows all of your climbing-enthusiast audience to see each others’ anonymous secrets, in addition to their regular contact network’s.
  • If you can convince all of “your” Secret users to include a special hastag, say #climb, in their secrets, it will be easy for all the climbers to quickly identify other climbers’ anonymous secrets. And you, as the publisher, will be able to pull out the best anonymous secrets and publish them in your media products.
  • I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess what secrets climbers might tell on the Secret app, but they’d probably cover the humorous (“I put rocks in the bottom of my climbing buddy’s pack”) to the tragic (“Nobody else will ever know this, but a mistake I made is the reason my climbing partner died”).

Coming: more secrecy helpers

There’s much value in sharing yourself in the digital world. Of course, with each piece of personal information that you share publicly or with a group of online “friends” or “followers,” you give up a bit more of your privacy.

And as the Snowden revelations so shockingly demonstrated, the powers of government intelligence agencies have developed to the point where there’s little that we post online via our phones or PCs that can’t be examined by spies. We’re even sharing personal information unwittingly, as location data flows from our portable digital devices to network providers, and thus to the government.

I view the Secret app as one of likely many similar apps and services that will appear in the coming year or two designed to give us all some relief from the transparency society and the surveillance state.

If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t mind sharing personal information about yourself to a select group of digital services, because you get benefit from doing so. But there are some things I do not wish to share, except to a small group of friends or maybe only one other person. To achieve private sharing, we need more ways to keep our secrets secret, and the NSA blocked.

Edward Snowden’s revelations have ensured that many developers are or soon will be working on new technologies to give us privacy when we need or desire it. Secret the app is a pretty good start.