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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

May 17, 2014 at 10:09 PM

To world of smiley social media, anonymous app offers tricky truth

A secret on Secret.

A secret on Secret.

Last week at a local tech event, two friends gushed about a popular app they had fallen for. When I posted later that I had gotten it, other friends were quick to warn me away.

It’s not worth my time, they said. Worse — it could hurt.

The app is called Secret. Its users post short thoughts that, though they are anonymous, are labeled as coming from a “friend” if the author is in the user’s phone address book and they have enough friends on the app for that to obscure the source.

One user in my circle confessed to having edited a Wikipedia article to win an argument with a girlfriend. A second admitted loving a cat more than most people. A third announced that twins were on the way.

And I felt that craving I get every time I draft what my friend Sara Kiesler calls an almost-post — a candid, raw thought I write but decide not to publish on social media because I hit some wall or other.

The craving to just tell the truth.

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Secret is one of several new apps offering a way over these walls, a way to get candid with friends without the fear of judgment that pressures users of popular social networks like Facebook to stay safe, happy and artificially light.

Hide enough of yourself, and you’re not being yourself. And you know it.

“I hate that self-censorship is part of my daily life now,” one friend wrote on a Facebook thread I started about this. Some confessed to redacting almost-posts weekly. Others, several times a day.

But I know what you’re thinking. So let’s back up.

There are more great reasons for you not to post certain personal things publicly than any of us can count. They could be too reckless, too fleeting, too out of context, or really would expose more than is good for you.

That’s Online Etiquette 101, circa 10 years ago, hammered into our heads with every cautionary tale about someone who got fired, dumped or ruined by something true they shared stupidly.

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Plus, who needs to be 100 percent themselves to huge virtual networks of — let’s face it — almost-friends?

The anonymous Internet has shown for decades what monsters we make when we put on a mask. It’s the creepy back alley at night. Why go there?

Reddit has shown that with the right vibe and strong moderation, anonymity can dig up pearls of candor. But we can be real jerks. Neither Reddit nor new experiments in anonymous social media — with all their custom filters and techie safeguards — can filter out the pain we cause each other when we think we have nothing to lose.

One friend deleted Secret after a couple people the app identified as “friends” posted mean things directly about her, once including her photo.

I’ve seen a couple of attack posts on my feed. I don’t want to see any more.

An essay in New York Magazine last month started a mini news frenzy when a high-school student at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., described how disgusting gossip released by an anonymous social-media app called Yik Yak had, in the course of a few periods, brought his whole school to a halt. Students stared at their phones, cried, went home, didn’t want to come back.

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“And the worst part was that no one knew who was writing this stuff,” he wrote.

As friend and Seattle tech writer Andru Edwards put it, one danger of these apps is how easily they “allow adults to act like children, and children to act insipid.”

And yet I’ve found myself checking Secret more frequently, posting a thought or two, feeling that release when something real gets out, finds support and maybe gives it.

And yet when the friend who had deleted the app heard that its controls had gotten better, she asked, “Should I give it another shot?”

My friend Julie Kaufman asks three questions before she lets herself share a candid thought in an open channel: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

If so, then maybe we need that thought. Maybe it can join in the battle against everything out there that’s not.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Column, Conversation, Identity, Privacy, Seattle, Social

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