Whisper, Secret and the debate over anonymity

As apps such as Whisper and Secret gain popularity — and funding — the age-old talk about anonymity is heating up.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, without naming names, said over the weekend that apps that are designed to allow users to be anonymous “encourage negative behavior” and can result in “ruined lives” and “broken hearts.” He said the topic is important and needs to be discussed.


Others echo Andreessen’s concerns but explore in more depth that the issue isn’t so black and white. Austin Hill, tech executive and former VC, wrote about the topic on Medium and does name names, specifically Whisper and Secret — which in the past week have scored funding rounds worth $30 million and $8.6 million, respectively.

Hill first points out that the apps give users a false sense of anonymity: “Neither of these companies have done the bare minimum to develop a security model that backs up their claims of anonymity and they both should be ashamed.” He also compares Whisper to the popular entertainment/gossip site TMZ, and urges engineers to “recheck [their] priorities” and do something more worthy.

But does the possible good that can come out of allowing online anonymity outweigh the bad? As he has for a while now, Mathew Ingram argues on GigaOm that it does: “Much like the Internet itself, anonymity is a tool that can be used for good or ill, but I believe we gain more than we lose by allowing it to occur.” In his post, Hill also acknowledged the value of things such as TOR, the anonymity network that makes it difficult to trace online activity of those who are trying to avoid censorship. And Whisper touts that it can play a role in battling cyberbullying.

But using Secret to slam a female engineer who now has quit GitHub seems to accomplish not much except to underscore Andreessen’s points about such apps “tearing people down.”

However, is that any worse than the abuse that can arise elsewhere? As you can tell from the quote embedded above, Andreessen broadcast his thoughts on Twitter, a platform that, unlike other prominent social networks such as Facebook, allows users to remain anonymous. It’s well-known that Twitter has enabled organizers of revolutions to spread word anonymously. On the other hand, there is no shortage of news stories about harassment or abuse by unnamed trolls on Twitter.


Screenshot above from Secret’s website


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