Secret CEO wrestles with cyberbullying issues on new anonymous sharing app

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Social networks

Secret logoThe CEO and co-founder of one of the newest anonymous sharing apps, Secret, took to the stage at SXSW 2014 to describe how the company plans to keep it from turning into yet another cyberbully's paradise.

Tech Crunch posted a video with highlights of the interview here.

During the on-stage interview, David Byttow told Tech Crunch's Josh Constine that Secret differs from its anonymous sharing kin - Yik Yak, Whisper, PostSecret, or Ask.fm - in one crucial aspect: it's not a public feed where strangers can post or reply.

Rather, a user sees only posts from their community or from people they've interacted with, he said.

That often includes cries for help, Byttow pointed out.

Tech Crunch featured a screenshot of one such exchange, wherein a woman claiming to suffer from complications after a miscarriage posted that she'd like to tell her boss but is wary of being judged for getting pregnant without a partner.

It's not that cyberbullying doesn't occur on Secret, which was founded in October 2013 and has already scored over $10 million in funding.

But on the rare occasion when it does, the userbase quashes it fast, Byttow said.

In fact, he said, the one occasion he could remember of cyberbullying in the new platform was reported by the community and removed before he had a chance to check it out.

But while the company plans to continue to rely on users to set norms and handle most moderations, Byttow said that it will step in and remove abusive content when necessary.

Some other things the company is considering or that it's already introduced as it tries to keep Secret as bully-free as possible:

  • Possible 17+ age limit. Yik Yak, for its part, was also pondering a minimum age after the social chat service turned toxic enough to get it banned from some schools. But what, exactly, can an app such as Secret or Yik Yak do to keep younger kids from using it? Earlier in March, Yik Yak co-founder Brooks Buffington said the company was looking into geo-sensing every school in the US so as to block the app from use by youngsters - at least while they're at school.
  • Proper name recognition and flagging. When users try to post content that includes a proper name, Secret pops up a dialog explaining that defamatory, mean-spirited or offensive posts are against community guidelines and can be flagged/removed. Byttow didn't respond when asked whether company names are similarly protected but did say that posting about individuals and using real names is "obviously against our guidelines".
  • Report personal defamation in addition to objectionable posts. Secret is considering having a direct way to report "not just objectionable posts but ones that defame them personally".
  • Pop-up link to suicide prevention resources. This feature is coming in Secret’s next update and will be activated if a user's posts indicate suicidal thoughts.

Secret's site urges users to share with their friends, secretly.

"Speak freely," it urges. "Write anything that's on your mind, free of judgment."

If only it were that simple.

Sometimes, the judgment of others is a vital component of keeping things civilized.

Let's hope that Secret learns the secret of how to strike the balance between a free-speech haven and a judgment-free, cyberbullying mosh pit.

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One Response to Secret CEO wrestles with cyberbullying issues on new anonymous sharing app

  1. LonerVamp · 161 days ago

    It's quite the amusing quandary. We have some (still not enough) interest in anonymity. Yet we then require that things like cyberbullying be dealt with. The only way you can deal with things like that are less anonymity (to some degree or other) and user-based self-administration which ends up creating cliques and arbitrary rules based on who likes you.

    At some point the user base needs to grow up a bit. If you want anonymity, you're probably going to have to deal with anonymous-driven issues in your own anonymous way. Someone is anonymously calling you names on the Secret system? Freakin' ignore it or adjust your tailored community accordingly. Likewise, you can't have systems like this and also make it a goal to prevent violence or depression due to it. This isn't ever going to be Candyland unless you have admininistrative oversight, which digs at the anonymity issue.

    Likewise, expecting users to follow written rules and "be nice," is pretty naive.

    (There are also plenty of users who want "conditional" anonymity. They want to be anonymous, but maybe sometimes or with some people not so much. Or maybe they just don't get it and drop way too much information that they aren't really anonymous anymore. There should be more discussion amongst kids and newbies online about anonymity. And for the love of all that is good and pure, pick a decent screenname to use online! :) )

    What always surprises me about communities like this is how they seem to make this all sound so novel and these issues so new. I mean, we've had online forums since before the web. You could be anonymous. You could have some administrative oversight, but otherwise use your ignore feature judiciously. Or just buck up and not internalize people's negative thoughts towards you.

    Maybe we need less control and more ability to grow a thicker skin online? (Nonetheless, there are still lines that end up being crossed which are valid arguments, though they end up in undefined grey areas and slippery slope discussions.)

    Maybe some of the issues on sites like Secret could be a way to never actually have persistent content. If someone wants an answer to a question or whatever, maybe they can opt in a discussion to be public or persistent, but everything else falls out of existence after x days or y inactivity. So much about defamation and other things is due to the permanent nature of all of this online data; things like this are said on playgrounds, in bars, and amongst social groups all the time through the course of history, but aren't such a big deal due to the transient nature of spoken words into the air.

    (By the by, being able to call yourself the Secret CEO is probably eternally amusing in itself! Or Secret Tech Support or whatever.)

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.