The last few weeks, like everybody else, I've been a silent observer and a rare poster (or not) on the new thing on the block: Secret. Secret is a mobile based social network that works on the principle of relative anonymity. You need to create an account and connect using your Facebook, Google and/or phone number (hence not anonymous). Once logged in, you can post a message (much like a tweet) and your feed will get updated as your friends and contacts in various degrees of separation also post secrets. Especially with the rise and culmination of the information society narrative and the NSA leaks, surveillance, privacy and anonymity have become buzzwords. It has also given the much needed push towards learning encryption and securing yourself on the web because everything you say is being recorded and might be potentially used against you. While this holds a veritable threat for human rights activists, lawyers, programmers and those directly involved with extremely sensitive and life threatening information, in the post-NSA times, we heard the (in)famous "nothing to hide" argument from NSA itself and further from users who wondered why privacy should be a big concern for them because, well, they had nothing to hide. Not going into further exploration of people's attitude towards their own digital presence, I take this opportunity to highlight a new/old market of services around anonymity and a partial taking back of the personal space to say things we want to.
To track back, groups and networks like Anonymous, The Pirate Bay, LulzSec, TOR and others certainly form the early voices around the need for anonymity and resistance against censorship. From being a hacktivist or largely online fringe to Anonymous becoming the most influential person of 2012 in the Time poll, awareness regarding speech regulation, censorship and surveillance have indeed come a long way. I argue, even in common parlance. Although it would be a gross generalization to map digital geographies onto physical ones and that even apps like Secret or Whisper as Silicon Valley products continue to travel in their echo chambers, I think it is interesting to understand this new generation of apps from a different vantage point. So, since its introduction and explosion from the Valley to a larger userbase, Secret has been slapped with the oft repeated charge of "not really anonymous". This is important to mention because in almost every new social network that I now participate, one of the primary discussions is - how safe is it? Is it breakable? These charges were levelled against Whatsapp (rightly so) and caused a flurry of messaging apps like Telegram, Line, Threema that all claimed to be 1) open source 2) secure, only to be exposed for their vulnerabilities. Perhaps, TextSecure is the ultimate alternative. I don't know yet.
Here lies the paradox
And, now - Secret. In a Mashable article titled Ironically, Anonymous App Secret Is Hatching IRL Meetups, the author writes "you can be anyone you like - even yourself!" Secret was also almost immediately called out for itse pseudo-anonymous claims. Unsurprisingly, and as I argue, unironically, Secret isn't completely anonymous - what you post there can actually be linked back to you because Secret collects enough data to do so. And, there is no guarantee they won't. In fact, if you look closely, Secret isn't even claiming to completely delink the message and the author. In terms of authorship you still know if the post is by a friend, friend of a friend, or person in X city/country or someone X miles away from you. Also, it uses icons to denote every voice in a post. If you reply again, people know you through your consistent icon. This is also what a Secret investor admitted: “A slight layer of anonymity is simply a tool to draw out this expression, while an emphasis on strong connections (via the address book) makes such expressions more valuable to both senders and receivers.” As the Recode article further tells us, "The grand idea behind this: Once partially divorced from identity, we’re able to be more open with sharing whatever things we want to share. Though since you’re still connected to your network of contacts, ideally you’re less inhibited to tell your friends and acquaintances what you really think."
Again, surprisingly/unsurprisingly, most of my Secret feed has been filled with twitter takedowns (discussing personal lives of people we follow on twitter or gossip on other people we always wanted to know about), pining and love confessions and, startup circle candidness. What's more? People coming on Secret with an aim to unhinge their identites end up expressing interest in 'blue monkey', 'red glass', 'green bug' and even (as the Mashable article explains) end up hooking up on an anonymous chat network called AnonyFish! So, what was the point of the whole exercise in delinking and then some linking? Also, whom do we want to speak to if not absolute strangers behind veils? In an article titled, Who's that Friend?, Nishant Shah speaks of designs of trust and of friends that leak secrets, not networks. But, to turn it on its head, why would we need Secret to speak to friends then? My hunch is that the more connected we are, the closer we get, the better we know each other, the narrower our space becomes in terms of speaking different things. The performativity that blogs afforded us before web reputation kicked in has been diminishing as our friends, employers, parents and potential lovers find us on networks and frown or gaze in bewilderment at our inconsistent networked lives. Especially, in a post-Facebook world where we hardly control how our professional, personal groups and affiliations that we may be hesitant to share, merge, the idea of speaking behind a veil becomes delectable despite knowing it is only to friends we speak (or in fact the relief that they are friends). Not to mention, the social life of my veiled friends is beyond intriguing - tales of infidelity, extremely misogynistic remarks, racy office revelations. Am I sure they aren't performing, just a little? I can't tell. In that sense, Secret is a respite from the self, a place where fact and fiction are equally fascinating. I've already seen fleeting discussions where people's vocabularies, topics and time of posting are being used to decipher or construct identities. Some others are also leveraging Secret to get feedback from friends.
Its investors and users alike have already begun to debate the ethics of anonymous apps and its rival, Whisper has emerged as a tool of free speech as other networks were banned in Iraq. So, to return to the anonymity question, my attempt was to unearth the need for a reconfigured kind of anonymity, the one that lies between civic action and slander - one that allows for newer ways of knowing one's existing networks without expanding them - the reason why you, (I) and others may be taking to Secret.