A new app allows people to share messages anonymously within their circle of friends—but it can get ugly fast.
I’m visiting my best friend in Atlanta and things are just like they were in high school—we gab about friends, what people are doing, whom they are doing, and how they are doing it. It’s a little good old-fashioned gossip, and we indulge ourselves in it for a bit. It can get catty, but it never gets mean. He checks his phone a few times and I ask what is going on.
“I’m on Secret and I literally can’t even,” he says.
Intrigued, I ask him what Secret is: It’s a smartphone app where users anonymously post secrets. Like Facebook, secrets can be “liked” or commented on. The app pulls from your Facebook feed, so Facebook friends with the app are put in your Secret queue as “Friend.” When they comment or like something, you see that secret as a “Friend of Friend” (FoF) post. When you post a secret, the instructions are simple: “Share a thought.” And when you comment on another’s post, the instructions are, “Say something kind.”
My friend is looking at a post about the best bottoms in Atlanta, and he’s scream-laughing at times. He reads some comments to me, and while funny, they mention names. Imagine if your name popped up there: “John Smith doesn’t wash his sheets after a trick,” or “John Smith takes it raw,” or something even worse.
“Where’s the accountability here?” I ask.
“There doesn’t need to be any,” he says. “Most people know these secrets aren’t necessarily true.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. What if John Smith isn’t on the app and cannot defend himself? And what if the secret is true, but just that—a secret?”
My friend is a little sensitive, and I wonder what will happen when his name pops up. When I find out he’s upset it hasn’t, I wonder if the app is just another means for validation in our social-media dominated age, a means to feel wanted or desired or liked because, no matter how bad or true or untrue the secret might be, at least you’re being talked about.
Of my 1,500 Facebook friends, 23 are on the app when I download it. A week later, the number almost doubles to 42. The content that is anonymous, but based on clues in the secrets and in the comments from the friends, FoFs, and the original poster (OP), many times you can make a safe deduction about who is posting what, especially if you know which of your friends have the app.
I’ll admit—I’m nervous I may see my name. I hope it never comes up, but I wonder, if it does, what it will say about me.
The posts aren’t all bad. I have a friend that is making a Death Star out of CDs gleaned from the Dixie Chicks/George Bush controversy of 2003, a controversy that my family still talks about, as the pop-country group is no longer allowed in the kitchen karaoke queue on holidays.
Another is about how an FoF is secretly disappointed whenever he or she pulls a Q-Tip out of an ear and it comes back clean. I comment back that I feel the same way, and a few hours later, a friend says she read a post on Secret about this and had to share with me since we’ve had a similar conversation before. I don’t tell her that I had commented—I want to keep some of the fun of the app.
One post really gets me thinking and I love the dialogue that results. It is something about which I constantly think, the idea of privilege and being born into a type of it. I want to cheer for this app because maybe through it, polite and important conversations can happen. Perhaps this is the purpose of an app like this.
But then the Regina Georges of the Internet troll the app, using it for their own Burn Book intents. A post starts off well-intentioned enough—“So for something positive, are there any guys in Chicago who people actually like and are nice people?” The OP tries to curb the negativity on the app through the post, and I am happy to see a friend’s name mentioned, a friend that is a total sweetheart. But people start tearing him down, getting more and more vicious about how this guy is “a rude asshole…and will give you bedbugs” in their comments. These posts boil my blood. Another person is mentioned, a person I don’t care for much, but even the name-calling of him bothers me.
The statements seem false, and even if they’re true, so what? You can’t be friends with or like everyone, but why find the need to tear them down?
Posters can say awful, defamatory things about others, can tell downright lies if they so desire, and may ruin another’s reputation. It’s cyber-bullying, plain and simple, especially for people that would rather bully without the hint of any retaliation because of the anonymity behind Secret.
I find the app vile at this point.
And then, the app breaks my heart. An FoF posts, “I am scared of losing my wife due to her anger problem.” Though I don’t know the OP, I feel for him (I imagine the OP to be a “him”). I want to reach through my phone and offer him a hug and take him for coffee. Instead, I just comment for the OP to “Try to talk to your wife and to be patient with her, but to be realistic. Love is hard and it is work.” I don’t know if he read the comment because he doesn’t respond.
And then, a friend posts, “I’m terrified of letting myself be happy again.” I get this, friend. I tell my friend I understand, but I don’t know who it is. I don’t know who to hug or who to call and say, “Are you OK, friend? How can I help you?” I don’t know to where I should direct my compassion.
While this hurts me, what really breaks my heart is that I don’t know if I’m being a good friend because I cannot figure out who this person is. Because Secret pulls from my Facebook friends, I wonder if this is a good friend, a mere acquaintance, or a person with whom I shared a class once years ago. I can’t say, “I’ve had a rough time of it recently, too, so maybe we should grab a beer sometime or go for a walk together.”
I tell my friend who showed me the app that I’m deleting it. “I can’t take the vile posts,” I say.
He responds by telling me they are fun, and I disagree with him. Devolving into gossip is too easy—who doesn’t enjoy a good gossip session? Yet when it’s face-to-face or through a means where your name is attached, there is accountability. Secret could be a place where people get “real,” but it seems not to be rooted in the real world. Instead, it mostly seems to be a place where people stop being polite.
I think about my own secrets and the one I post before I delete the app: “I want to be a person who is kind.”
The app can be good if people do what the two instructions say. Share a thought or say something kind. Even if you disagree, being kind in your response isn’t too much to ask for. Is it?
Parker Stockman is completing his thesis in Creative Writing-Fiction at Columbia College Chicago. He has told stories at 2nd Story, You’re Being Ridiculous, and The Center on Halsted for World AIDS Day.