How long can you keep a Secret?February 12, 2014: 5:00 AM ET
Secret is the latest in a line of faddish apps -- and we're burning through fads faster than ever
FORTUNE -- In a scant few days, social media app Secret went from a viral hit to a bona fide phenomenon. Launched just over a week ago, the iOS app allows users to anonymously share notes and photos.
It's been steadily climbing the App Store rankings, cracking the top 20 in social networking and top 150 overall, according to App Annie. Perhaps more importantly, it has captured the minds of early adopters in the tech and media worlds. But that could be the problem with this kind of buzz -- the faster an app explodes in popularity, the faster it burns out. If past viral hits like Chatroulette, Turntable.fm, and Draw Something are any indication, Secret is in for a challenge.
The rate at which web users consume and discard new apps is accelerating. Proof of that is clear: Chatroulette was popular for around nine months before users lost interest in its often-lewd content. Turntable.fm, which exploded in the summer of 2011, peaked that fall before people tired of its novelty interface. It was popular for long enough to raise $7 million in venture funding before finally shutting down late last year. Draw Something, a game which took off in early 2012, climbed the App Store rankings for just six weeks before Zynga (ZNGA) acquired its parent company, OMGPop, for $200 million. Almost immediately after the deal, the app began losing users. Recent viral hits which the jury is still out on include Snapchat, Vine, and Frontback, a photo-sharing app which gained traction over the summer but has been quiet since. The moral is: The majority of viral apps and companies have ended up as losers.
Games are particularly hit-driven, and the spikes in popularity and drop-offs afterwards are becoming steeper and steeper. See this Google Trends chart for searches of Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and recent viral hit Flappy Bird over the last five years for proof of the quick spikes and subsequent drop-offs in interest.
Consumer tech companies are looking more like blips in the news cycle than actual companies. As consumers (or rather, "users") surf from trend to trend, we're becoming increasingly aware of how fast the hot new thing falls out of favor.
"Those sorts of consumer shifts used to take years or decades, but now they can happen in months or weeks or days, and we're becoming accustomed to that idea," says Ian Bogost, game designer and professor of interactive computing and literature, media, and communication at Georgia Institute of Technology.
"When you pick up something like Snapchat or Instagram or Draw Something or Flappy Bird or Secret, you're kind of aware that this is a thing that will be here for a minute ... and there will be something to replace it," he said, noting that the pace of keeping up can be grueling. "Even for those of us who are in the know, it's exhausting," he added.
Despite the speed at which new technologies can come and go, venture capital investors still pour cash into them in the hopes that they'll have the staying power of Facebook (FB) or Twitter (TWTR), and eventually become legit, money-making media businesses. That's increasingly hard to do when viral apps can come and go in a matter of weeks.
The latest viral hit, Secret, will need to do a few things to last beyond its hype cycle. For one, Secret must create connections between people that they can't get anywhere else. This is what made Facebook last -- many people don't have other ways of communicating with the friend lists they've built on Facebook. Even Whisper, another app for sharing secrets which is popular with college students, has created ways for its users to stay connected with each other.
Secondly, Secret must solve its anonymous troll problem without killing what makes the app so great to begin with.
Secret is addictive in the same way trashy gossip sites or junk food are addictive: It's just devilishly good. Reading juicy gossip, posted by a friend or a "friend of a friend," gives users a rush of excitement, even when they know it's wrong.
Members of the tech industry immediately latched onto the app as an outlet to call out bad actors in their industry, make fun of favorite villains, and spread gossip about each other. As is bound to happen in an anonymous forum, people were unnecessarily cruel. Some argued it was therapeutic, or even necessary, since techies are expected to put on a veneer of constant positivity and self-promotion. (Other industries might call it basic professionalism to avoid trashing your peers in a public forum.)
Not long after Secret had its freewheeling moment of irresponsibility -- a Secret claiming startup Evernote was for sale, which was quickly denied -- a backlash arrived, and the anonymous bad-mouthers were admonished as bullies. Mike Isaac at Re/code asked whether Secret could survive the trolls. He noted that users were already turned off by the negativity and consequence-free gossip afforded by anonymity: "Friend or no, not everyone is nice in the dark."
Secret is all the rage now, but it could easily wind up a silly fad that everyone laughs about a few months from now. Certainly Silicon Valley has had its fair share of those.