New Zealand's deepest, darkest secrets

DEREK ROSE
Last updated 15:50 20/06/2014

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New Zealanders are telling the internet their deepest, darkest secrets.

One of the newest trends in social media is anonymity. Apps like Whisper, Secret and Yik Yak are letting users confess their guilt, vent their frustrations and rant about friends or family members - all without revealing their identity.

It's like the website Postsecret, redesigned for the mobile era, allowing people to get things off their chest without fear of repercussions, judgement or being over-analysed. There’s a rawness to many of the posts that you don't see on social networks like Facebook, which seem to have devolved into feel-good commentary and self promotion.

‘‘I have really bad social anxiety and speeches are coming up, I don’t know how I’m going to do it without bursting into tears or something,’’ one Wellington-area person shared on Whisper recently.

You’d think that sharing secrets like this might be a recipe for disaster on the ugly internet, where cruelty and snark are often the norm. But users are often supportive and non-judgemental. ‘‘Decide on five people to look at in the audience and make your speech to them, ignore the rest,’’ one person replied.

As Facebook has "become saturated and everybody you know is on it — your friends, your family, acquaintances, business colleagues — it's very hard to share something that's really personal because it goes out to this mixed audience and it stays permanent on your profile," said Chrys Bader-Wechseler, one of Secret's founders. "It has become a formal place to share information and life events, but we see less and less and less of people just being honest."

'CRAZY ISSUES'

On the two main anonymity apps, Whisper and Secret, Kiwis are posting about their relationships (or lack thereof), sex, careers and insecurities. Loneliness is a recurring theme.

In response to a question Stuff posted on Whisper, people gave different reasons for using the confessional tool.

‘‘To get some crap off your chest/mind you normally wouldn’t say out loud... in public anyway,’’ another person wrote.

‘‘It’s funny to see what crazy issues people deal with,’’ one person wrote. ‘‘And sometimes nice to offer ... advice. Or to troll.’’

Users announce their engagements and pregnancies on Facebook, but on Secret users will often ask for advice about wedding proposals and post pictures of their pregnancy tests, Bader-Wechseler said.

Sometimes the overseas posts from the States include Silicon Valley and Hollywood gossip. Whisper is credited with breaking the news that Gwyneth Paltrow’s 10-year marriage was in trouble a month before she split from husband Chris Martin. Over the weekend it also broke the news that the US embassy in Baghdad was evacuating a few hours before the mainstream media did.

Not all of it is compelling stuff. There’s a fair amount of everyday minutiae and ‘‘wanna chat’’ messages on Whisper, which has a private-messaging feature. ‘‘I just posted a whisper about wanting to kill myself,’’ one person wrote near Wellington recently. ‘‘I got six guys ask for nudes. Now I do want to die.’’

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‘‘Welcome to the Internet,’’ someone responded, with the background of a giant fat cat. ‘‘I see you are new here.’’

Secret has no messaging function and so there aren’t the ‘‘Any girls wanna chat with a married guy?’’ messages that occasionally make the other anonymous app Whisper seem low-class. Unlike Whisper, Secret integrates with a user's contacts to mark some posts as coming from ‘‘friends’’ or ‘‘friends of friends’’, which can make for interesting guessing-games. Other Secrets (like all the ones in the gallery above) come from nearby users.

There seems to be less Kiwi content on Secret than on Whisper, which is perhaps not surprising since it’s newer, but the interface is flashier.

RAPID GROWTH

Whisper has experienced rapid growth since launching two years ago. Users average 30 minutes a day on the platform, and are reading a whopping 3.5 billion app page views per month. It’s raised over US$60 million at a valuation of over US$200 million, and is led by a 26-year-old CEO, Michael Heyward.

Secret launched in November, came to New Zealand in April, and has already raised US$10 million from outside investors at a valuation of US$100 million.

Experts say there’s a good reason why they’re becoming so popular.

"People are not hard-wired to keep secrets or even to want to keep secrets," said Karen North, a social media expert at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "People want to get those secrets off their chest. And now we have apps that allow people to say and do things anonymously."

Joseph McGlynn III, a doctoral researcher with the Centre for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin, says it can even be healing to vent. 

“Talking about negative or troubling experiences is a cathartic process for many people,” McGlynn said. “The ability for people to be part of a community while remaining anonymous is particularly promising.”

With anonymity so hot right now, it seems like secrets are here to stay.

-Stuff, with MCT

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