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What Killed Secret?

The anonymous messaging app, once the darling of Silicon Valley insiders, shut down on Wednesday. Here’s what went wrong.

What Killed Secret?
[Photo: Flickr user Gopal Vijayaraghavan]

There’s only room for so many anonymous messaging apps in the world, it turns out. On Wednesday, just over one year after its launch, Secret, the anonymous gossip-sharing app that went head-to-head against the likes of Whisper and Yik Yak, officially shut down.

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It was not long ago that Secret was standing triumphantly atop a mountain of tech press hype and $35 million in venture funding. So what happened?

The news, first reported by BuzzFeed, was confirmed via Twitter and a Medium post by Secret CEO David Byttow, who wrote that “Secret does not represent the vision I had when starting the company, so I believe it’s the right decision for myself, our investors and our team” to shut it down.

The above quote is very telling: Secret evolved into something different from what it originally set out to be. Along the way, it generated controversy, faced stiff competition and lost users, and eventually tumbled off of that mountain of hype.

Like Whisper and Yik Yak, Secret offered users a way to post public messages anonymously. The app was often used, as its name suggests, to share anecdotes and feelings its users normally wouldn’t tell people, which made for some interesting, often gossipy reading. Not long after its launch in 2014, Secret (which was previously called Whispr, not to be confused with Whisper, its eventual competitor) had captured the attention of Silicon Valley insiders and the interest of investors like Alexis Ohanian and folks from Google Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.

It generated plenty of excitement, but, as you might expect of an anonymous forum, Secret wound up being used for unsavory things. Among the gay community in Washington, D.C., for example, Secret quickly became a digital watercooler with some pretty nasty gossip swirling around it. Explains The Daily Beast:

In a town where everyone is a wannabe Zoe Barnes or Edward Snowden, Secret has great potential as a breaker of red tape and top-secret clearances, but any would-be whistleblowers have been drowned out by a bitchy cacophony of insider gossip and outright libel…

As a consequence, the white-collar gays of D.C. have turned Secret into a dumping ground for personalized gossip. “I’ve seen someone’s HIV status revealed on there several times. I mean, if this is what adults are doing with it, I can’t even imagine what high school kids are doing.”

Washington was not the only place where Secret was used to anonymously sling libel and harassment. While the app continued to serve an intriguing, non-trolly purpose, the ranks of Secret’s mudslingers started swelling across the board, winning the app a more controversial reputation than Byttow or his cofounder Chrys Bader-Wechseler had anticipated.

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When Secret appeared too sluggish in its response to cyberbullying, some members of the Silicon Valley tech press came out with guns blazing. In a series of scathing articles, PandoDaily called Secret “morally bankrupt” and predicted what PandoDaily founder Sarah Lacy saw as an inevitable wave of Secret-inspired suicides. Faced with questions about cyberbullying onstage at SXSW last year, Byttow promised a shift in both policy and product that would discourage what he claimed was only a minor problem.

As criticism mounted and competitors like Yik Yak and Whisper gained steam, the team behind Secret soon realized that a major change was in order. So in December 2014, Secret relaunched with a dramatically different design, which happened to look remarkably similar to Yik Yak’s interface. Not long after this overhaul, cofounder Bader-Wechseler stepped down, saying that “the next chapter of Secret is beginning in a way that will be less about the kind of creation and design that I love.” Yikes.

Of course, a fresh coat of paint and some new features aren’t going to tame cyber-harassment. And inching closer to the look and feel of one of your top competitors isn’t the way to make it any easier to sell your product to consumers with plenty of options to choose from. So, a year after its launch, Secret’s creators have decided, wisely, to let the app go.

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About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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