A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal (for preventing anonymity startups from being a burthen to us, and for making them beneficial to us)

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” And all seem to be doing it about the new class of apps that rest on the premise of anonymity and/or ephemerality.

The most recent in this breed, two-week old Secret, is already ensconced in the home screen of what seems to be every iPhone in Silicon Valley’s social circles, thereby provoking the knee-jerk reaction from naysayers arguing that it harbors that all-too-familiar addictive quality we also find in trashy magazines, reality TV shows and fast food. Their bottom line is that this app, which allows users to anonymously post secrets, is a flash-in-the-pan that can make us feel bad about ourselves and therefore will likely die a quick death like many addictive apps before it. And maybe it will. But that’s not the point.

Anonymity’s Growing Pains

Yes, at their current state, apps like Secret and Snapchat are flawed. By virtue of its anonymity, all’s fair in Secret. Users in the app can post anything spanning from philosophical musings about life to darker, targeted and potentially revealing sentiments about specific people and companies. It’s already being pegged as Silicon Valley’s new blind item and has, by extension of that, the potential to become a kind of high-school style slam book or lulu for everyone.

What’s more is that, to some extent, these types of apps can condone a certain amount of (let’s call it) irresponsible user behavior. They can enable false rumors to spread and encourage everything from cyber bullying to slander. And even when what’s shared is honest and reliable, there are always cases of information too sensitive for certain eyes to see, as in the case of, say, insider-trading violations. Also, the jury is still out on whether or not they are ultimately anonymous services. These are serious issues.

Why You Can’t Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater

But judging a fledgling product or group of products is like judging a baby’s potential to be a runner with her very first steps. It can distract us from understanding the problem it’s scratching away at, the nerve it hit.

If we dismissed Twitter, for instance, with every inaccurate rumor it surfaced, we’d never see it evolve into the breakthrough broadcast communication system it is today. If a company’s strategy is a cup of water, and we’re rooting for the company to turn this cup upside down and dump it, how will we know the fledgling problem-solving strategy we may have lost? To top off our proverbial cups and quote a line from the film ‘For Your Consideration,’ “you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because then all you have is a wet, critically injured baby.”

 The Nerve Of Anonymity Apps

At their best, apps like Secret and Snapchat allow us to share something with others without rendering us too vulnerable. And perhaps more interestingly, they also likely scratch our itch to get honest, emotionally intelligent information from actual people. And the timing for this itch makes sense.

When we first started using the Internet, we wanted to be able to efficiently find information that was on it. Enter Google and other search products. Then we wanted to connect with real people on it. Enter Facebook and other social products. It’s only natural that we now want to combine the type of information we can get from people — emotive-based data like social proof — with the efficiency of obtaining information via Google.

One may argue that products like Quora or Jelly satiate that itch. To some extent, that’s true. But some information — the type you’d want to, say, privately share with someone to help them avoid a mistake you’ve made without you yourself suffering any additional personal repercussions (e.g. a bad hire, boss, nanny or even friend) — still remains, for the most part, in the analog world. This means that if you don’t personally know the person who has the information you might want — or, even if you do, don’t feel comfortable enough to ask about it — you’re out of luck. This is the background problem that anonymity apps are essentially chipping away at.

So outside of the more obvious cathartic use case of expressing a secret with the potential to connect with others around it (which deserves its own merit), there’s this other key problem that these types of products hint at addressing: There’s useful information we want to know that people consciously hide for an array of self-preservation reasons. How do we allow the free release of this private information and one’s self preservation to evolve beyond their current mutually exclusive state?

Let’s take a quick dip in that proverbial bath, in the spirit of Archimedes. Let’s say Secret (or a similar product) were to release a search feature that would allow you to anonymously search for anything posted in the app. And let’s say you are about to hire someone and just want to do a quick sanity search on their name. A Google search will likely produce a mirror, more or less, of their resume. But Secret may reveal aspects of their work ethic or personality from people who have actually worked with this person.

Naturally, we’ll have to solve the aforementioned problems we have around the accuracy and sensitivity of the information before we get there — and that’s no small feat. It will likely require a sophisticated and efficient method of background vetting via up-to-the-minute intelligence around everything spanning from the source of the information to the relative context of the information within the greater pool of inflowing tips.

But the potential inherent usefulness of this type of information — which can range in subject from personal finance to health to relationships, the things that tend to matter most to us — is what drives us to itch for this type of product.

At This Fledgling Stage, We’ll Get Toys

The products and services that are, in one way or another, chipping away at answering this question will likely first come across as toys, because toys have the potential to engage us more than staring a big problem blankly in the face.

But focusing on the toy aspect of a fast-growing app’s flaws is much like the smaller ‘discussing people’ mindset. Let’s move up from discussing products like people. Let’s put them in context and start considering them, at least to some extent, as ideas. That’s likely when we’ll break through the current issues we have with anonymity and understand where it will take us next.

Editor’s note: Maya Baratz is the Head of New Products at ABC News. She previously ran new product development at The Wall Street Journal, and before that was a product lead at startups including Flickr. Follow her on Twitter @mbaratz.

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