New social apps like Whisper and Secret are riding on the innate desire of an individual to express his/her feelings without the fear of being identified. And this holds true with each of us as well; in fact psychologists say anonymity gives people a sense of security.
Apps like Whisper and Secret allow people to unburden themselves of things they may not want to tell their families, friends or anyone else for that matter. Beneath a curtain of anonymity, millions of Whisper and Secret users boldly say the unsayable, while millions of others look on with astonished, shame-faced delight. The experience may not be altogether noble, but it’s certainly addictive.
Whisper is one of a growing group of social networks designed to let its users post anonymous messages for the world to read. Whisper is an app that lets users anonymously share their secrets with millions of others in acts of contrition, catharsis and some degree of nameless performance. It has active users in the “many millions” according to founder Michael Heyward, and while it’s been around for two years and collected $24 million in funding, Whisper has recently seen a surge in growth and media attention, being dubbed a mashup between Twitter and Snapchat. The app is especially popular with young people as a place to gripe about relationship troubles and eating disorders.
Whisper’s iOS app, which received its biggest update since its launch in March 2012 today, is ostensibly similar to Secret, another anonymous network.
Although with every new thing, there is a fear of it going wrong as well. Anonymous social networks have suffered from issues of bullying and malicious communications in the past. Whisper and Secret aren’t exceptions either. There are some apprehensions such as:
- Vicious gossip and valuable corporate secrets could conceivably be leaked through such apps.
- Whisper is moving to turn its confessions into “content” that can go viral, like posts from UpWorthy or Buzzfeed already do.
- Whisper may soon show ads, at a time when mobile advertisers are learning more about mobile users through location- and behavior-tracking.
- Whisper does track users in order to ban unscrupulous types, meaning you’re not completely anonymous to Whisper itself.
Cleverly, Whisper encourages you to create, not just consume. In the middle of the screen sits a round button with a plus sign, enticing users to dig deep and make a Whisper of their own. Heyward, 26, says an incredible 45% of Whisper users post something each day.
The idea is certainly compelling: a backlash to the ultra-curated reputations we build for ourselves on Facebook, and something of a throwback to the blunt and gritty world of anonymous posting on sites like 4chan.
But users should remember that nothing is 100% anonymous on the mobile web — not least on a free service that eventually needs to monetize itself. Users should also bear in mind that another diverting app for sending secret information, Snapchat, had 4.6 million user names and phone numbers exposed in a security breach last December.
That’s why some in the InfoSec community are still perturbed. “It gives people a false sense of security,” says Robert Statica, a cryptography expert who also co-founded the private messaging app Wickr. He’s concerned about Whisper’s tracking of user locations, the use of device IDs and the fact that it uses TigerConnect, the API of private messaging app TigerText. (TigerText’s co-founder, Brad Brooks, is chairman of Whisper. TigerText is also a competitor to Wickr so bear in mind that Statica has some skin in this game.)
“Communication not only goes to Whisper but TigerText and their servers,” says Statica. “So forget about being anonymous. Whisper tracks you even more than the NSA does.”