Anonymity on social apps can be dangerous and has always been controversial. The founders of Secret tried it and ultimately failed. But does their failure indicate there being no value for anonymity on social apps? Karma discussions are teaching us a few things.
At Aleph, we’re focused on building a supportive startup community where people can help each other by sharing knowledge, with as little moderation from us as possible. The side project we invest the most resources and time in right now is Karma, a mobile app and platform dedicated to entrepreneurs. Karma is not another social network nor about growing a volume of users. We’ve built Karma to give members of the startup ecosystem a way to ask for help, give help and share knowledge. Karma is about value and access, not vanity.
Around the same time we launched Karma, Chrys Bader and David Byttow launched a social app which created a lot of buzz - Secret. The vision of the Secret founders was to build a social network where users can share their personal secrets with other users anonymously.
Personally, I did not understand what the hype was all about. A social network is about sharing personal moments – whether by text, photos or videos – with a group of people who have some interest in your life and stories. Why would you want to share personal thoughts or feelings with random people who hide behind “pink pig” or “yellow star” icons? Could this app be called social when it seemed to be anything but social?! However, working in the VC industry for some time, I learned that when it comes to startups, I should suspend my disbelief. So I decided to be more open-minded about Secret.
Logging into the app I expected to read interesting secrets about someone or something that had relevance for me. However, due to the full anonymity, most posts were nothing but boring, sexist or offensive. The app quickly became a schoolyard brawl and platform for bullying. It even motivated a court in Brazil to order Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores. Despite the harsh criticism, the founders managed to raise a substantial amount of money from investors who continued to believe in the anonymity-driven free for all, but many users (including me) abandoned the app.
An interesting question remained though. Is there value or a good use case for anonymity on social networks?
Finding a balance and putting the community first
When we launched Karma, we wrestled with the question of anonymity. Eventually, we decided to allow anonymity but only for the person making the request.
The first few “undercover” requests were more obvious and general, such as what type of a job should an Oleh – the name commonly given to someone who immigrates to Israel – look for. That person ended up emigrating with the support and job hunting skills of the Karma community. As the users gained trust in the platform and a strong community developed around it, we saw anonymous requests develop into interesting discussions.
One discussion that caught my attention was started by a founder (“Anon”) who invested himself in his startup and was now being pushed by his investors to operate in a shady or potentially illegal way. The founder asked whether he should continue working under such conditions or quit. This balance between a secured setting in which someone can ask such a sensitive question without being exposed and the fact that he would know the identity of the respondents created a fascinating discussion that would not take place at scale otherwise.
Within a day “Anon” received over 20 answers and offers to help. The answers ranged from “Get an independent lawyer” to “Add an industry expert board member” and “Don’t give up, fight for what you think is the right thing to do.” The community offered both mental support and actual advice from their own experience.
Apparently, the Karma community was so supportive that “Anon” came back a few weeks later to update the thread and respondents about his tough decision to leave the startup and see it get destroyed by his investors. The immediate responses were fascinating. So many people offered comfort, suggested to meet for a drink and even left their personal details for “Anon” to contact them when he looks for a new job.
What enabled this sincere and open discussion that supported “Anon”, and may have saved him from making a huge mistake or getting further involved, is this delicate balance between anonymity and a truly open discussion on Karma. The users can receive valuable and educational advice and, at the same time, protect their privacy and reputation.
Last month when David announced that Secret is shutting down, he said, “I believe in honest, open communication and creative expression, and anonymity is a great device to achieve it. But it’s also the ultimate double-edged sword, which must be wielded with great respect and care.”
Personally, I doubt that you can create a vibrant, honest and open communication service on a platform where no one is accountable. It took the Secret founders a year and a half – and $35M – to learn what we’ve all have seen play out in one form or another – that widespread anonymity online can be dangerous. If you want to succeed in generating real conversations and value, you have to dole out anonymity carefully and remain mindful of the well-being of your users and benefits to the broader community.
While writing this post a new anonymous business community app was launched. On Insiderr you can post or comment revealing only your professional LinkedIn credentials.
My tip to the Insiderr team is: Don’t repeat Secret’s mistakes. Don’t let your app become another gossip and bullying platform. Use anonymity wisely. You must find the right balance and put your community and users (and not funding) first. It is not just about buzz, growth and the number of users or downloads. It has to be about providing smart value. That’s why your users will ultimately keep coming back and using your platform daily.
That’s the secret of Karma.
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