If humans are anything, it’s adaptive. Give us a tool, and we’ll figure out a use for it. That’s what happened when we mapped out our social lives to the constraints of the Internet.
After we constructed the portals to everything (all of America, Online), we then refined the web, dealing with our basic needs first by building platforms for finding work or friends or romance. We figured out the nuances later, like why we’d need a universal status-update system like Twitter.
Because these systems, and later mobile apps like Instagram and Path, kept our data forever, humans became stranger, more abstracted versions of themselves when they interacted on them, performing what Jenna Wortham called “success theatre.”
Recently, and for a while, scrolling through one’s online life during the weekends was the best way to cause a massive case of FOMO: “Look, there’s someone at Davos, and there’s someone at Burning Man and there’s someone on a boat in the San Francisco harbor. And here I am, Netflix-binging again.”
You had to deal with your own messy behind the scenes while watching everyone else’s meticulously Instagrammed highlight reel.
But this weekend was different. Over 70 of my friends and acquaintances joined an app called Secret, which is just like an app called Whisper but involves your phone’s contact list. Secret bore little resemblance to the glossy microcosms that I see on my other social apps, though you’d argue it was exactly the same people populating both.
The world of Secret was not filled with Pac Heights villas and dinners I was not invited to and champagne. In fact, it was a lot darker, with many people anonymously professing loneliness and pill-popping and secret crushes.
Oh, so Secret is like what actually happens! As music journalist and legend Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” Philip Seymour Hoffman quipped, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
The only normal people are the ones you don’t know.
The shape of things does not signal what lies beneath. You can be an Oscar winner and a drug addict. You can be Instagramming the San Francisco skyline, and Whispering and Secreting that you’d rather be somewhere else with someone else — who is with someone else.
Using the “Sutro” filter to make a sunset that much more envy-inspiring is different from revealing that you feel inadequate or too fat, though you could argue that both are parts of the human experience.
In fact, we have a need for this kind of catharsis, as everything from the Catholic Church’s confessional to cognitive behavior therapy reveals the market for. Writing out your anxious feelings beforehand causes you to do better on a test. Expressing what worries you before you go to bed leads to a better night’s sleep. And making jokes about your odd co-worker in your company backchannel makes them almost tolerable.
But we feel more freedom with a post that’s not permanent or public; it will not interfere with our future once we decide we don’t want to be the same person anymore. There’s a reason the kids love ephemerality: Their angsty 14-year-old selves won’t be etched in data for perpetuity.
So Secret or Whisper or, for that matter, Snapchat or Confide or any app that attempts to make the way we connect online more like the way we connect in real life is not a death knell for social networks. It is, in fact, their future.
The Internet needs to learn how to forget, or not know in the first place.