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.
Stuck at the airport? Tech can help make life easier while you wait.
FORTUNE -- Few situations are more irksome than toughing it out in a packed airport for a delayed flight. That plastic-backed seating is uncomfortable, those power outlets a precious commodity. And when it comes to figuring out your ETA, airline employees sometimes know as much as you do.
But waiting doesn't have to be a traumatic experience, thanks to a MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Nov 27, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Chillingo, the publisher behind mega-hits like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, has a knack for finding mobile gaming cash cows.
By Kurt Wagner, reporter
FORTUNE -- Mobile game publisher Chillingo knows how to pick a winner. Founders Chris Byatte and Joe Wee were the first publishers to stumble on Angry Birds, created by Espoo, Finland-based Rovio, back in 2009. With Chillingo's help, the game grew into a $1 billion MOREFeb 14, 2013 7:08 AM ET
The secret to populating an unpopular smartphone platform: cash incentives
A nice piece of reporting by Jenna Wortham and Nick Wingfield landed on the front page of the New York Times Business section Friday morning, two days before the launch of the Nokia Lumia 900.
When free phones and promises of prime real estate on the Windows Phone app store wasn't enough to get reluctant developers to write software for the new MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Apr 6, 2012 7:41 AM ET
Cut the Rope is one of the most popular iPhone games ever. Now the team behind it is gearing up to merchandise like crazy.
By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- You've likely seen Angry Birds schwag -- t-shirts, hoodies, stuffed animals, key chains, backpacks, iPhone cases, even flip-flops. Now the makers of Cut the Rope, the fourth most popular paid iPhone app, are looking to do the same with Om Nom, their MOREMar 16, 2012 10:06 AM ET
The videogame maker missed the mobile revolution. Now EA is trying to turn itself around by embracing social games. Can it play on Zynga's field?
By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE -- Is John Madden going social in a big way? Not the football commentator. ("He's not really the tweeting type," an associate says.) No, we're talking about the Electronics Arts videogame Madden NFL, named after the famous coach.
Fresh off its recent success MOREDec 1, 2011 5:00 AM ET
Think the popular game has peaked? These astonishing stats may make you think twice.
FORTUNE -- Angry Birds is the game franchise that just keeps on giving.
Some wonder whether the casual video game's popularity has peaked. Rovio's General Manager for North America, Andrew Stalbow, thinks otherwise. Today, Stalbow revealed that there have been 350 million Angry Birds downloads since the game's launch in December 2009. PLayers are putting in an astonishing 300 million MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Sep 12, 2011 2:24 PM ET
Facebook executives have choice words for Google's efforts to bring casual games to its fledgling social network.
FORTUNE -- A little less than two months after Google launched its fledgling social network, Google+, Silicon Valley's latest rivalry is heating up.
Google+ (GOOG) launched in June with an innovative group video chat dubbed Hangout. One week later, Facebook announced a video chat feature of its own in cooperation with Microsoft's (MSFT) Skype. Last MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Aug 16, 2011 2:53 PM ET
Mobile games are just one wing of Rovio's plans for a global entertainment empire.
By Stacy Cowley, CNNMoney tech editor
FORTUNE -- Here's a fun stat: The 300 million players who have downloaded Rovio's Angry Birds games have flung more than 100 billion avians -- more birds than actually exist in the entire world.
"Our goal is to be the first brand with a billion fans," Peter "Mighty Eagle" Vesterbacka, Rovio's chief marketing officer, MOREJul 21, 2011 1:17 PM ET
Moving freemium to the corporate level will be tricky.
FORTUNE -- With consumer-focused companies like Angry Birds developer Rovio and Spotifyproving that freemium is a valid business model in the consumer space, the next question becomes: can freemium also work its magic with enterprise?
That was the theme of one breakfast roundtable earlier this morning at Fortune Brainstorm Tech, featuring Survey Monkey CEO Dave Goldberg, Ning CEO Jason Rosenthal, Index Ventures partner MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Jul 20, 2011 1:04 PM ET
|AT&T cuts prices again|
|Ukraine crisis: Aid, sanctions and fallout|
|Malaysia Airlines stock sharply lower after plane vanishes|
|Winners and losers of the bull market|
|The Deep Web you don't know about|