Investors Debate The Ethics Of Anonymity Apps

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VCs are publicly and privately debating the morality of investing in the burgeoning “anonymish” app space, after a series of negative posts, mainstream gossip, a high profile resignation and even bomb and violence threats have pushed the volume of the debate to eleven.

Last night, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen had one of his characteristic Twitter surges. He began his speech by referencing product developments that unequivocally exist for the good of humanity, comparing them to products that are “designed to encourage negative behavior, tearing people down, making fellow souls sad.”

He asks in his soliloquy (included below) whether these products should be invested in, from an ethical and moral standpoint, due to the possibility of negative consequences. Investor Mark Suster, who has been singled out as a target on Secret just like A16z has, supported Andreessen’s view.

“Investors make choices every day,” Andreessen wrote, in a continuation of the thread. “Many things don’t get funded that would make $ but aren’t ethical, moral, and/or legal.” He confirmed that ‘public opinion’ sensitive LPs are one reason behind this, and notes that “headline risk”, “branding risk” and “explaining to family risk” are some others.

While he emphatically did not mention specific apps, the most popular apps in the space currently are Yik Yak, Secret and Whisper. The Secret and Whisper CEOs have replied to Andreessen, citing that the positive aspects of their respective products outweigh the negative.

To Whisper CEO Michael Heyward, who brought up an example of a potential suicide prevention on Whisper, Andreessen responded, “How do you decide who to protect and who to out?” with a link to our story about Whisper gossip and Gwyneth Paltrow.

As far as I can see, no prominent Secret or Whisper investors have joined the discussion, but Homebrew’s Hunter Walk has provided his take, holding that moral issues should affect investment choices but not focus solely on a product’s negative side.

Walk says that he asks, “Is the world a better place because this product exists? Not ‘can this product be abused and utilized for negative purposes’ but rather ‘what is its primary use case, primary reason for being and can the team sustain that true north over time?’” before choosing whether to invest.

If I were a Secret investor, I would say that people are people, and will exhibit bad behavior almost anywhere you put them. Former about.me community manager Laura Gluhanich brings up the fact that Twitter, Andreessen’s debate platform of choice, did nothing when a user posted her home address and issued death threats. In fact, some parody accounts on both Facebook and Twitter allow for a form of antagonization similar to that on anonymous apps.

I would also echo what Secret co-founder David Byttow asserted, that the potential for these apps to improve upon the human experience is immense, but we have, “lots of hard work to do and difficult issues to work through.”

I have never read worse things about myself and our writers than on Secret. Not even in our comments section. Sure, this is the business we’ve chosen, but what happens when you point this water cannon at a person who has never owned an umbrella? “This is [the] heart of a big part of my concern,” says Andreessen, “It’s the most vulnerable people who will be most damaged when this goes wrong.”

Despite sharing this concern, I am a happy user of Secret and other apps in the space, and want to see them adjust themselves to provide maximum objective good with the least amount of bad. Bringing this aspect of human behavior into the light is a first step, as is adding features like post flagging and moderation.

This is an important topic beyond tech, a question of how humans should treat one another: Can we enforce niceness? Do we want to? Do we have a moral obligation to do so? And if we do, how can we execute on that, without a heavy hand of censorship? Who decides what defamation is, or fair commentary? When does gossip become slander? And are we equipped as an industry to handle these questions? We in tech are great at building, but at moderating? There we don’t have much of a track record.

As this is a very timely and ongoing discussion, I’m looking forward to continuing the debate in our comments section, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Secret, on Whisper, on Yik Yak, on Wut, and in person.