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The Secret Bubble

March 10, 2014
TechCrunch
by Matthew Panzarino

There are not a lot of posts in my Secret feed marked ‘nearby’. In fact, I can tell you the exact number: 0. This is because I live in a medium-sized city in the San Joaquin valley, not in San Francisco, New York, Austin or San Diego — the locations I see most heavily represented in the messages delivered to my ‘circle’.

Some portion of this we can chalk up to the ‘bubble’ that exists with any new hot social app. The filmy barrier that buoys and nurtures fledgling services until it either bursts and releases them, or asphyxiates them into strangled sworls of Color.

There are a couple of kinds of ‘bubbles’ that we talk about in tech. The most prominent is the ‘money bubble’, which posits that companies and investors are riding a wave of faux optimism when it comes to the worth of technology. This is the other kind.

There are a few major trends in consumer Internet worth tracking, and several of them are woven together. Among these are messaging, ephemerality and anonymity. All of them are products of a generation raised on the Internet. I do not believe this is a coincidence.

Truth be told, I think that Secret likely has a strong chance of puncturing the virtual real-estate of the early adopter bubble. It’s got a simple, universal premise and a very human draw. It taps into the psychological topology of the modern Internet resident in a clever, powerful way. After a generation of Internet users who have treated permanence and indexing as the cover charge for entering, there is a new group of people who have a real awareness that they might not want everything that they put on the web to be there forever.

We are entering a new phase of the development of the net, in which we can actually make some real choices about what we want to be indelible and what we want to dissipate into the digital ether after it’s served its purpose. Part of this is the simple age of the medium. The early days of the web were marked by enthusiasm and sharing — we all helped this grow.

Now, the machinery is in place and people like Edward Snowden have forced us to acknowledge publicly what we all felt in some secret crease of our cerebellum: privacy is for the luddite.

Secret taps into that, to a degree, especially along the ‘anonymous’ axis. Even though it’s very much ‘security psychology lite’, it still plucks threads attached to the same sensitive nerve clusters that tell us that everything we’ve ever said to a computer has been read by someone in a cubicle in Virginia somewhere.

It’s the fast-food to the square meal of TextSecure or Cryptocat or Telegram. These are apps built for Serious Things and Serious Discussions that we want to remain Private. Secret, by comparison, is frippery. But, as time and tide and McDonald’s have proven to us — the frilly, fatty edges of things are often those most consumed, while the healthy inward parts remain the domain of the health nuts.

Because it came along at the right juncture, and because it plays on our basest desires — I believe that Secret has a real possibility of popping its bubble in fairly good shape.

But even doing so is no guarantor of value or benevolence. Even if the founders have a sincere interest in making a platform where people can be honest, we all know how that turned out for the Internet. Our own Josh Constine asked some serious questions of Secret founder David Byttow in a SXSW panel about what the service is doing to mitigate cyber bullying and abuse and what it’s doing to make Secret a safe place — and I believe he was right to do so.

Once Secret emerges from its current pupate state, we’ll get a clearer picture of the value it can, or cannot, bring. Because of my location, I’m often treated to a fairly unique vista as the enthusiasm and froth of a new service surges out of San Francisco and crashes onto the shores of Real Life, CA. So far, there is no serious surf for Secret, but when and if it does break, it’s very likely that it will feel much different here — which is fine.

Whatever it is, I hope it brings something worthwhile. A platform that gives a voice to people with too much fear in their hearts to express it any other way; something that gives voice to the voiceless; a tool to unlock inhibitions of the heart and mind. Not just another way to be crappy to one another.

It’s the sign of something lasting when a structure is flexible enough to mold itself around different ways of living and different values. We’re talking about Secret, but we’re also talking about whatever the next thing is. That thing you’re shout-pitching to a VC at a SXSW party or running over in your head on your drive out to Sand Hill road with your palms sweaty on the wheel of your rented Toyota Avalon.

Conquer those battles, get some users, create interesting things. But always remember that your wave will someday hit the shore — make sure it brings something valuable with it.

The Secret Bubble

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