How Secret May Uncover A New Secret To Mobile Growth

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Editor’s Note: Semil Shah works on product for Swell, is a TechCrunch columnist, and an investor. He blogs at Haywire, and you can follow him on Twitter at @semil

Greetings from a rainy (but always fun) Austin, TX. As is the case leading up to every SXSW, many wonder what will be the breakout app. As someone who works in, invests in, and writes about mobile, the app that’s come up the most in conversation, offline and online, is no “secret.” It’s not too surprising given Secret launched publicly at the right time (a little over a month ago), received both critical acclaim for its design and ability to motivate people to create original content (it’s a very clever app) as well as criticism for the potential negativity and bullying which could take root inside the app (which are very valid concerns), and has updates key features at the right time — most recently adding location (nearby secrets) and the ability to share secrets to the web and, thereby, spread information to an even wider audience. Most recently, it’s been reported that Secret closed a larger round of funding.

For a number of reasons, Secret is a fascinating app. It emerges during a time when many new apps allow for (relative) anonymity and aren’t built from online social graphs but, instead, from a mobile phone’s address book. It transforms the passive-aggressiveness of a subtweet into a product, creating a space for people to speak their minds with less of the filter required by traditional social networks. It created a new type of newsfeed — the SecretFeed — which is not bound by being presented the traditional, reverse-chronological manner, which allows secrets to resurface over time. Personally, while I see the concerns, I do like the app and open it about once a day because the content is so new, fresh, raw, different — despite the fact that I stumbled across a secret where my name came up negatively in the comments from a variety of users (see picture).

Like any new product that has people buzzing, questions remain. In Secret’s case, I find those big, unanswered questions to be fascinating. In my opinion, here are the big open questions about Secret:

What Will The Company Do To Control Abusive Behavior? The top concern seems to center around the app’s potential to be used as a bullying tool, especially among young folks. My belief is the founders and investors are well-aware of these unsavory risks and will build tools, as well as empowering their community, to flag, report, and trace repeated mean-spirited behavior. I prefer to take the founders at their word and the thoughtfulness around exposing their hashing techniques and other statements leads me to believe they won’t take this lightly. (Along similar lines, how “anonymous” is identity inside the app?)

When Will The App Be Used To Break Big News? This is an exciting one. We all assume news breaks on Twitter and Facebook, but if we pause, often someone has to leak that news to a source who then puts it online. With an app like Secret, a user could post an original photograph and write a post about it, and people connected to that user can help the secret propagate through the app’s network, as well as through the web. Of course, people will also report fake news, misreport news, and other pranks. Yet, I do think Secret will be used as a whistleblowing tool and  to break news and could be an interesting growth-driver as it expands, as journalists outside of tech could see it as a place to mine scoops (see below).

How Will Secret Scale Across Platforms? I’ve noticed Secret is a bit slower to load every now and then. It’s a great problem to have. While the images and posts that load appear to carry a bit of weight (which may impact load-time), I’m sure the team is working on making the system faster, as today’s mobile users have come to expect the speed of zippy apps like Snapchat. I’m sure the team is also working on their Android app, but I wonder if they’ll release it soon (to increase their user base and activity) or wait a bit. I’m also curious if they’ll ever allow user interactions through content shared from the app to the web, though that seems doubtful given the network is built from users’ mobile phone address books. (I do expect them to offer each secret on the web to be embedded as content elsewhere.)

Will Brands Find Affinity Inside Secret? I spoke about mobile at an event yesterday where many brand managers of large, international, recognizable consumer brands were in attendance. While we didn’t discuss Secret specifically, they all mentioned to me that mobile networks like Instagram and Snapchat, among others, provided a tremendous amount of interactivity with consumers. They seemed most concerned about where attention was focused. Some have tried to release their own mobile apps only to learn, after the fact, that the majority of mobile app attention is not siloed by brands, but rather through news streams and communication networks where users often opt-in to specific brands or marketing messages. If Secret grabs more and more attention (and if it grows, see below), I do think brands will pay attention and dollars will follow.

And, The Big Question: How Will It Grow? I have often argued (perhaps incorrectly, time will tell) that mobile apps which truly achieve breakout status come from one of a few buckets. There’s gaming, of course. After that, it’s apps that leverage the phone camera in some way (Instagram, Snapchat), or apps that benefit from network effects (Whatsapp and other messaging apps), or apps which aggregate consumer demand through the phone but fulfill the demand offline (Uber). Otherwise, most apps that do well have an influential “parent” with a web audience that helps move that audience to another platform.

Secret, today, doesn’t have these elements. Of course, it could (and likely will) add private messaging, as well as the ability to take pictures directly within the app. The question remains then — how will it grow into a breakout? Perhaps it grows simply on the power of lightweight web sharing combined with strong word-of-mouth. That was certainly the case during my conversations with people around the country here at SXSW. As it has done inside the Valley and tech circles, gossip seems to drive attention inside Secret, so it’s plausible to think the app would do well inside other chatty networks addicted to insider information, such as Hollywood and the Washington DC beltway.

It’s too early to call this one, and while the odds seemed stacked against Secret breaking out, any analysis is ultimately rendered moot because it will — like most things — come down to the product, to whether or not the app changes many peoples’ behavior and creates a space for people to share the things they wouldn’t in traditional manners or networks. So far, just a few months in, I’ve read Secret posts and rich comment threads on a range of topics — some trite, some thoughtful, some heartbreaking, some hilarious, and nearly everything in between. In a limited sample, people do seem to have bottled up thoughts for too long, either afraid to share them or not having the place to do so. One way or another, with all the publishing tools and sharing networks available to all of us, those secrets will eventually come out — it’s just a matter of time. It will be interesting to see this trend powers Secret’s growth outside of the echo chamber. On paper, it shouldn’t — but it just might anyway.

Photo Credit: My Secret Feed