Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in High-tech, and Who’s a Total Fool

The freedom of anonymity on Secret also frees people to unleash their dark side, making it a controversial app.

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When people can express their opinions anonymously, some pretty unnerving truths can come out, including about their colleagues. Now that the psst-psst app Secret has arrived in Israel, enabling nameless confession – the local high-tech scene is astir.

Secret is a mobile app that accesses your contacts list, or Facebook friends, whichever you choose. You anonymously post your secrets, which anybody in your circle of contacts can read, if they also join Secret.

There’s the addiction of confession, the relief – and the frisson of learning some pretty disgusting things about people you know, not that you know which ones. From the get-go, the very first users of Secret Israel were exposed to a dark, dangerous side of human communications. And while its use began among early adapters in technology circles, it’s gone mainstream. Secret conquered Silicon Valley by storm, and promptly went worldwide. In Israel, its use has exploded. Among the startup crowd, it’s become a real conduit for information, some of it valuable, most of it grimy gossip. It has also caused quite a bit of anguish among teenagers.

Yet it remains red-hot. An executive at an Israeli startup urged me to join last week. “You’re not on Secret? You should be, professionally and for the gossip,” he insisted. “It’s cool. It’s also a little nauseating,” he admitted.

Jealous of his privacy, he never shares things on Facebook, nor does he “like” things there, he says. “On Secret I can be freer, and there’s also tons of amusing gossip. On the other hand, everybody there are bastards, slashing at each other in public. It can really hurt people.”

Register to the service and you can publish anything, text or image, without anybody realizing who published it. The app’s design is simple. The secret you upload appears in a square on screen. Other registered Secret users can “like” it a-la Facebook, and respond to it – also anonymously.

In short the app shows you a stream of secrets posted by its registered users who are among your online “friends,” their online friends and so on.

‘Hillel’s some kind of idiot’

Hillel Fuld, marketing manager of the Israeli startup Zula, is well-known in Israeli startup circles, partly through work and partly because he blogs on technology and advises startups. His Facebook page has more than 13,000 followers and on Twitter, he’s got 26,000 adherents. And Fuld, who is held in high esteem on these “conventional” social networks, became one of Secret’s first victims.

Fuld joined Secret and abandoned it just as quickly after deciding he didn’t like the nature of the content there. And, he found himself the subject of not a few “secrets” in the high-tech pack that included personal comments, many of them hurtful, as well. In a status he published on Facebook last month, he responded to one of these secrets, one calling him a “kind of idiot.”

“Secret is everything that’s wrong with Internet and society,” Fuld grieves. “It makes me sad, and not because of what they wrote. That’s just one of the posts that people brought to my attention. I deleted the app. Did it hurt? Yes. Will it make me stop doing good for other people and for the Israeli technology scene? Certainly not,” he wrote. His comments won more than 400 posts on Facebook and 150 “likes.”

‘I don’t recycle’

As a platform that enables people to anonymously share their secrets, and emotional garbage, Secret attracts users for a range of reasons. There’s a huge amount of personal confessions. Some admit to being deep in the closet and some share sexual fantasies. Some share embarrassing things about their spouses, parents, siblings, or whoever.

Some are rather more innocuous – “My wife tells me to take the bottles and plastics and paper to the recycling bins but I don’t, I throw them out with the garbage.” And some post pure Hallmark faux-spiritual cliches – “One of the worst feelings in the world is knowing you tried your best, but it wasn’t good enough.”

Of course, you never know if the secrets are true or are being posted just to provoke responses, testing the virtual wind as it were.

As opposed to America’s adoption of Secret, by the general public, the app began its career in Israel as a thing in high-tech circles – including sexual fantasies about personalities in the local scene.

Among the “secrets” shared of late among Israeli users were questions: “What do you think about the SOSA venue for entrepreneurs and how its CEO got her job?” “Why do people hate the startups Billguard and Any.Do?” “Who’s the most self-important, pompous Internet entrepreneur you know?” ”Who’s on Yossi Vardi’s blacklist?”

Other questions that appeared in Hebrew Secret - Who’s the best investor and who’s the worst? Who are the hottest girls in Israeli high-tech? Who’re the hottest guys? Which apps are totally overrated?

Those are very revealing questions because Israeli high-tech circles are usually known for mutual respect and courtesy. Yet on Secret, these very same well-mannered people seem to delight in stabbing their friends and colleagues in the back. Zula raised money? On the record, everybody delightedly applauds; in secret, they hiss and spit.

Other discussions that start on Secret are issues rarely openly discussed – like “Why do most startups fail?” Or people share uncertainties. “I just got a generous buyout offer and I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Our first financing round was oversubscribed,” wrote one dude/tte.

Yo. Put the reporters against the wall and shoot them

Not surprisingly, there was a seminal event that propelled Secret to mainstream in the high-tech industry, an event that won wide coverage in the world press – but caused Israeli eyebrows to shoot sky-high. It was the launch in June of the Israeli app Yo, also a sort of new social-media thing. It’s a messaging service in which you can only send one message – “Yo.” Yup, that’s it. No “Howya doin'” or “Buy milk.” Just “Yo.” You’re supposed to understand it in the context of your relationship with the sender.

The media covered it enormously, at the same time coining it a moronic application with no clear purpose. In Secret, Yo was savaged. “Whoever ran the campaign for this garbage app deserves a medal,” somebody wrote. Another user suggested that the journalists who covered Yo’s launch should be put before a firing squad and shot.

Blonde 2.0, the public-relations firm handling Yo’s launch, and mainly its leader Ayelet Noff, were not spared. Some of the comments on her – and the company - were horrible. “Many in the industry felt the story was blown out of proportion because of manipulation of the press and sought an anonymous platform to say so,” says N., an early adopter of Secret.

“In the middle of the Yo campaign, which was the best we ever had, somebody told me we were a hot topic on Secret,” says Motti Peer, co-CEO of Blonde 2.0. He hadn’t heard of Secret before that. He uploaded the app and was appalled. “I was horrified to read what people wrote about us and our client,” he said, adding that a lot of people he knew in the industry had come under vicious attack.

“It’s easy to ruin a person’s name,” says N., and it’s easy to mount a campaign to do that very thing systematically, creating the false impression that there’s massive loathing out there. Best of all for abusers, there’s no accountability.

Replacing the toilet wall

“When I was kid, if a girl dumped a guy, he’d write ‘Shirley puts out’ on the toilet wall at school, or at a gas station, and add her phone number,” says Peer. “With the rise of Internet, people started posting that sort of thing. Secret is the third level. It’s a toilet. I think it’s disgusting. There’s nothing that could bring added value.”

As a media consultant, Peer advises clients to treat Secret like Internet posts – ignore it completely. They should only respond to people who identify themselves by name, he says.

Any minnow can pretend to be a shark, he points out.

“I am confident in myself and these things won’t stop me from doing what I do. But obviously it hurts,” admits Zula's Hillel Fuld. “I’m not a robot. Worse than what people wrote about me, is that this is what people are doing in our ecosystem. It’s anonymous. It’s simply low.”

Brave new world

Secret is more than a tool to slime one’s peers, but it can also be valuable. One user asked for recommendations for a mentor to early-stage startup wannabes.

Lool Ventures made a courageous, and intriguing, test of Secret’s better potential: it used Secret to solicit feedback on its own conduct. Respondents commented that the Lool people take too long to respond to solicitations from entrepreneurs, and provided other constructive feedback.

There were also, perhaps inevitably, personal smears, yet on Facebook – where the discussion can’t be anonymous – Lool’s move was considered a success.

“Secret is a communications channel, a place hot topics are happening. As such it’s important for us to be there,” says Lool partner Yaniv Golan. Yes, the anonymity can make managing the dialog more challenging, but it’s also instructive when people can say what they really think (maybe…) without the constraints of courtesy. “We invited people to say what they’d always wanted to say but couldn’t,” Golan says.

And how does one contend with the non-constructive criticism? “Don’t conduct the dialog at an emotional level,” Golan counsels.

The cool one in the physics class

Is Secret likely to blow over, or become an influential vehicle that influences the discourse in general, and in high-tech? “Hype among geeks is like being the cool one in the physics class. In the real world, nobody cares,” suggested one person.

Another who thinks it will vanish as fast as it popped up is Fuld, because the Israeli version is relentlessly negative, compared with the American one, which has positive uses, he says. “It’s embarrassing what people write there. It’s high-school stuff.”

It can’t upset him but can ruin life for unsophisticated teenagers, for instance, he says. “Libel is like ripping open a feather pillow in a typhoon, then trying to collect the feathers back. It can’t be done. That’s how words are. You can’t apologize after saying them.”

Some Secret posters also worry that their identity might be revealed in the future.

Yet could Secret meet some basic human need? E. starts by decrying irresponsible gossip, then admits that reading gossip about people he knows, unfettered by convention, is captivating. “It’s a mix of something very primal and disgusting, too. It’s a glimpse at what people really think.”