Spilling secrets via the social web

September 27, 2013: 3:51 PM ET

A number of apps and sites -- from Whisper to Snapchat -- are letting people let it all out without using real names. Is everything old new again?

By Miles Raymer

130927153717-internet-secret-614xaFORTUNE -- When Facebook threw open its doors to the general public in 2006, one of the handful of differences between the site and its less successful competitors was its assurances, baked into its terms of service, that the name on any account on the site was the same as the person operating it. On its face this was a small step, but it put a crucial bit of distance between Facebook (FB) and earlier services like Friendster and MySpace that had by then become clogged by spammy imposter accounts, and seemed to put an end to the decade-plus opening chapter of the social web's evolution -- people would no longer connect online via pseudonyms, and verified identities would be the rule from there on out.

Seven years later Facebook's most killer feature is starting to look like a bug, at least from certain angles. Verified identities may be useful, even essential, for some applications of the social web (business-related sites like LinkedIn (LNKD), for instance), but some users, specifically younger ones, are seeking out platforms that encourage a return to the screen-name-based methods that people used to connect online in the days of Web 1.0.

There are obvious and practical reasons why this would appeal to a generation of social-web natives: The more the social web embeds itself in our lives, the more crucial it is for us to be able to keep parts of our lives off the record. Hence the popularity of Snapchat, which allows users to share potentially embarrassing photos without leaving a digital paper trail -- users can share all the party pics they want without worrying about a potential employer later stumbling upon them in a Facebook album. Popular apps like Kik and Viber offer users access to a whole range of ways to connect with each other pseudonymously, including text messages, video chat, and voice calls, and are pointing to a new iteration of the social web where users can worry less about their online presence being traced back to their real identities.

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"Young people have this awareness of their digital footprint that not everyone else has," says developer Michael Heyward, "because they're not dealing with it day-in and day-out from an early age." Two years ago, Heyward and his partner Brad Brooks started a combination web and mobile app called Whisper that offers users templates to create text-and-image mashups for the purpose of anonymously sharing their secrets -- sort of a mass-market version of the popular site PostSecret -- that quickly found a substantial user base on college campuses and has started to reach a broader audience. Recently the company raised $21 million in funding from Sequoia Capital.

Heyward says that social-web natives are the early adopters who are driving the market for apps like Whisper, Kik, and Snapchat, but that the desire to share sensitive personal information about ourselves without attaching our identities to it is universal. "It's like the stranger on the train analogy," he explains. "You aren't going to tell your secrets to your closest friends, but you'll tell them to a complete stranger. You don't care because there's no social context there."

Like strangers on a train, Whisper can provide deep interpersonal connections, even if they're anonymous. "Secrets breed intimacy," he says and insists that despite the fact that they're nameless and faceless, Whisper's users constitute a real community. The reason, he explains, is that beyond the practical reasons of wanting to be able to dish sensitive personal information without it getting back to, say, our significant others (a popular subject to share secrets about), there is a basic human need to do so. And it's one that the Internet is only strengthening.

"One of the problems with Facebook and the social web in general," Heyward says, "is that it gives you such an unrealistic perception of what's going on with your peer group. You think everyone's always having fun, everyone's always at a party, everyone's always out, because that's what you see. The way that you form an opinion of yourself is based on how you see yourself in relation to everyone else around you. How do I know I'm tall? Because you're short. So if everyone's so popular, everyone's so cool, everyone's always getting laid, I'm sitting here like, why is nobody texting me?"

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As a species where social capital equals success, we have a natural tendency to present only our best, most successful sides on social media -- everyone wants to come across as funny on Twitter, good-looking on Instagram, and well-connected on Facebook. But there seems to be an equal and opposite impulse to share our weaknesses as well, sort of an anti-narcissism that's driving the return to modes of online communication that are more compatible with anonymity. That's not only good news for companies who are providing these networks, but if you believe Heyward it has the potential to improve our real-world relationships as well.

"One of the most common phrases on Whisper," he explains, "is, 'If anyone ever knew what went on in my head they'd think I'm crazy.' Probably hundreds of thousands of people have posted that." Taken en masse, he says, Whisper is "really the same thousand secrets over and over and over again. We have this fear as people that we're so different from everybody else. We think we're all incredibly unique, but we're actually a lot more similar than you think. It just shows you the importance of being aware of that, and that knowing that we're not all that different, and that we should be more compassionate, more understanding, more empathetic, more sympathetic together."

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