Confession Apps Whisper, Secret Give a Taste of Online Anonymity

BusinessWeek › Brad Stone

Since the rise of social networks such as Facebook (FB) and LinkedIn (LNKD), Internet users have navigated the Web more or less chained to their real identities, with their activities and musings permanently on display. Two new, growing social networks hearken back to a time when online communication was anonymous, frequently juvenile, and more than occasionally libelous.

Whisper, a startup based in Santa Monica, Calif., and its San Francisco counterpart, Secret, allow users to express their innermost thoughts without names attached, and they make those reflections visible to anyone logged in to the free services. Child safety advocates question whether the companies can guarantee the anonymity of their users and worry that the services could be used to defame strangers or bully teens. The sites’ backers argue that anonymous speech simply offers a freer means of self-expression. “There is a real desire to be more authentic online,” says Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia Capital who led a $21 million investment in Whisper last fall. “Most people have more to say than just, ‘Here I am on the beach looking great.’ ”

Whisper (, launched in late 2012, is all about talking to strangers. Users post short messages overlaid on typically generic photos provided by the service and reveal everything from professional shortcomings (“As a teacher, I’m not supposed to have favorite students, but I definitely do”) to relationship troubles (“My husband and I would make better friends than spouses”). The messages can be as moving as someone wrestling with how to express their sexual identity—or as banal as hand-wringing about hair loss. The company says it gets 3.5 billion page views a month and its users, who are mostly from 18 to 24 years old, use it for an average of 25 minutes a day—about the length of a typical Facebook visit.