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How Do I Really Feel About Apps Like Secret?

Here's what I've come to conclude about anonymity and the Internet.
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By now you likely know that Marc Andreessen weighed in on anonymous apps in a 12-part Twitter diatribe.

Anonymity. As the old joke goes, "on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog."

I have been weighing in slowly on the topic over the past few weeks on Twitter but have avoided writing a blog post about it until now. This was in part due to a tremendously busy 30-day period for me (in which my overall writing has been down) and in part the inevitability of knowing that weighing in just tees me up to take abuse on one anonymous app called Secret.

I have thought a lot about anonymity over the years and actually have enjoyed debating the topic with those passionate about anonymity's benefits because, of course, that's how I learn.

One really great experience was a discussion I had with the camera rolling with my good friend Dmitry Shapiro, who founded the major YouTube competitor of its time (Veoh) that was sued into oblivion by Universal. And who also founded a social network designed to promote pseudonymity. If you want to see that discussion it is here, and its especially fun because we also debated Google Groups, which went on (after the interview) to buy Dmitry's company. He now works there.

The most relevant segment is where we talked about his passion for pseudonymity -- the notes of which are linked there.

anonymity spectrum

I started from a position of wanting a "real identity" because to me I want to know whom I'm dealing with. That's why Facebook has been a great place for me to connect with friends, family and people I know well through business. I know who everybody is and it is a "safe" place for me to post pictures of my family or kids and have real discussions. Of course I know it's not "private" but I'm dealing with people I know.

Contrast that with Hacker News. Every time my posts have ended up there, the conversation has descended into hate and vitriol. A lot of people that don't really know me have called me all sorts of names. In short, I ended up having to deal with, what is affectionally called on the Internet, "trolls." People feel like they can say anything about you that they would clearly never say in your presence because they are cloaked behind an identity that often does not reveal their real name.

It kind of reminds me of an analogy in my head about cars vs. shopping carts. In shopping carts we sometimes get cut off, we're often in line, we sit in confined spaces and we're somewhere doing something we probably prefer not to be doing. But people generally let somebody pass them in a shopping cart -- even if they felt cut off. We're in each other's world and we see that they are human. We might see their screaming kid and have sympathy for them. Or see a six pack of Negra Modelo and at least know they have good taste.

Cars are dehumanizing. People cut you off and your blood boils. You call them all sorts of names. You might even flip them the bird. It gets so extreme that people will speed up and try to swerve around you if they felt the "injustice" of being accidentally cut off -- putting your life and their own into jeopardy.

Context is everything. Anonymity or pseudonymity can work in an environment that encourages it and discourages bullying.

My general instinct is that most anonymity apps breed car-like behavior. Intolerance. For all the terrible things people have said over the years about me on Hacker News simply because they didn't agree with my opinion on some topic. I feel certain that if most spent an afternoon with me they would feel very differently. It's like racism or prejudice. It's very easy to hate a group with whom you never interact and when you live in a big city where there are many ethnicities and sexualities. You realize we are all just human. Same wants. Same needs. Same goals. Even VCs.

But Dmitry pushed me harder, "It's easy being you, Mark. You have authority and achievement. You don't have to fear for your job talking about topics of importance to you." (As I did very early talking in favor gay marriage -- it seems that if you're an NFL player you don't have this same latitude, for example.)

But more to the point. What if I were young and gay and not ready to come out but wanted an online support group to determine how I felt? What if I believed my company was acting illegally or my boss was embezzling money and I wanted to find a group to ask what to do? Or an dissident in an oppressive regime? What if I needed support for alcohol abuse, drug abuse or spousal abuse? What if you discovered you had cancer but weren't ready to reveal it to your real friends but you needed support? What if you felt bullied at school?

It is clear that having the right forums (fora?) to express yourself with anonymity would be useful.

But again, context is everything.

reputation spectrum

When you buy tickets from somebody on StubHub or products on eBay, you likely don't know the seller but you can get information on them about their reputation by people who have bought from them. Reputation matters a great deal when you're buying things from strangers.

Some form of authority may be useful, too. If I'm in a chat room about disease, for example, it would be useful to know who has lived through the disease, who is a doctor, who is a spouse, etc.

Sometimes reputation and authority can come just from your actions in an ecosystem. Take for example FAKEGRIMLOCK on Twitter. I first discovered him or her as a commenter on Fred Wilson's blog. I have no idea who FAKEGRIMLOCK is, but I still know it is a pretty normal and thoughtful person through seeing his or her comments through the years -- and the fact that the community interacts with him as a "regular."

So I have gotten comfortable with pseudonymity. And I accept that anonymity is inevitable on the Internet. I'm not crying in my beer.

But context matters.

I first logged into Secret a few weeks after it launched. It wasn't because I'm the target demo for that app -- I am certainly not. But my job is to understand technology, and therefore you must use it to understand it.

My first week's experiments consisted of posting "Secrets" that were as authentic as I could make them. It was hardly Secret that I love my wife but on Valentine's Day I posted pictures of flowers I bought her and said that I didn't miss the days of being out at nightclubs in search of love. I have a very happy marriage and family life -- not exactly juicy Secret material. Still, I enjoyed getting feedback and having people comment on my posts.

But.

I really couldn't stand reading other people's posts and it has nothing to do with my age (45).

At least 25 percent of all posts were misogynistic. Twenty-five percent were homophobic or ironically openly gay, sexual and crass. Many were saying terrible things about fat people. I'm that guy who stood up for anybody in school when fat jokes came out. I find it horribly insensitive to make somebody feel badly about something that clearly is already painful to deal with for many.

hate on secret

Oh. I get it! Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Kill a fat person. Yeah. So so funny. Not. It's just hate. And we're promoting apps like this in the tech press and funding it. And that's fine because it's a free market and I get that everybody has a different spin on this topic. But I count 50 people above who found these funny. Nice.

I know for a fact many people feel that way I do. They say it in private conversations all the time but they don't want to speak up because speaking up makes you a target for bullying yourself -- as will no doubt happen to me tomorrow. I'm OK with it. If you can't tolerate somebody having a different opinion from you on this topic, we're probably not likely to be collaborators on anything anyways. How do VCs fare on Secret?

vcs on secret

Unsurprisingly not so well. And this extends to many VCs not just those that are vocal about Secret. It's not true that the VCs that most dislike Secret dislike it because they are lambasted there -- anonymously -- it's that many VCs simply don't like the idea of funding or promoting something used to so openly bully others.

I deleted Secret weeks ago, long before a post about me had ever appeared. I was tired of reading hateful things about Dave Morin, frankly (at the time he seemed to be 10 percent of posts in my stream).

I then got a text message from a friend of mine that I "had better log into Secret to defend myself!" Of course I took the bait -- how could I not. I logged in to find this lovely insult to myself.

slander on secret

Obviously nobody wants to read that about oneself -- I am human after all. But I'm self confident enough to not take it too personally. I know that anybody who wants the truth can simply call any of the companies in which I've invested and get a pretty accurate representation of who I am. There are many things I am -- but different than what I say on this blog is not one of them! In fact, if you don't like me on this blog you likely won't like me in real life.

I am confident enough with criticism that I'm willing to post that picture on my blog where it will get way more amplified than it would have on the narrow network of Secret friends-of-friends. If you're willing to believe information about the reputation of somebody posted by an anonymous person who also has no "authority" on a subject then you probably self-select out anyways.

So at the time I flagged the post about me as "bullying" and asked my friend who texted me to do the same. Nothing happened. It stayed up there. Other friends weighed in to no avail. So much for the Secret ecosystem that supposedly doesn't support bullying. It seems I'm not the only one with this problem.

secret people who have no voice

The Tweet above is really how I felt when I first saw that terrible post about me. I have a blog and a voice. I have 25 years of professional friends who will defend me. My portfolio investments are littered with people who have worked directly with me and for me. If that doesn't speak volumes I don't know what does.

I know that Secret isn't going away any time soon. It has captured the tech zeitgeist and has now raised a ton of money. But this isn't the first big wave of anonymous bullying apps to emerge. The last cycle we had Formspring and JuicyCampus that were both super hot for nanoseconds and both fizzled for different reasons.

So my advice for anybody building apps that are anonymous is to try and nail the balance of pseudonymity and authority or reputation management. Think about how quickly you remove flagged items that are identified as bullying (you could always reinstate later). Think about having consequences for those that cross the line into bad behavior. Being "put in the penalty box" for bad behavior and banned for repeated bad behavior, for example, would help with the system.

twitter facebook secret matrix

What I like most about Twitter is that it has reputation built in. I can see how many followers you have and how many people you can follow. I can read your bio and can read a stream of your previous Tweets. If they are interesting I will likely engage -- even if you have a fake name. If I find them vile I will likely move on. If you say nasty things to me I can block you, and if you spam me I can flag you. Importantly, unless somebody retweets you, I never have to know you exist so you have to earn your keep through quality content / posts.

Secret? It does have some really kind, supportive posts on it. I read a post about somebody whose partner was just diagnosed with a brain tumor. The responses were super compassionate.

scrawny body

There was also the post above about somebody having body image issues and again the comments section was very supportive. At its best apps like Secret or Whisper can be a place where people can reach out to the community for support. They could be a place to find solace when you're lonely or problem solve when you don't know who else to turn to.

But for now Secret is not that. It's something all together different. It is … Perez Hilton. TMZ. Joan Rivers. Geraldo Rivera. All rolled up into one anonymous bitchy session.

secret wall

It's gossip. Slander. Hateful. Hurtful. It's everything the Valley claims to hate about LA but seemingly are falling over themselves at cocktail parties to check five times a night.

We can do better.

I’m with Hunter Walk. If this drives enormous VC returns I'm happy to be the person who missed out.

Have fun with your posts about me tomorrow. I'll just remember one of my favorite segments from Jimmy Kimmel called "mean Tweets." if you haven't seen this before you'll enjoy the 3-minute diversion of famous people reading the mean Tweets people say about them out loud.

This article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table. 

IMAGE: Courtesy Companies
Last updated: Mar 17, 2014

MARK SUSTER | Columnist

Mark Suster is a two-time entrepreneur who has gone to "the dark side" of venture capital. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a general partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. You can find him on Twitter @msuster.




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