Are Secret’s Raging Hormones A Problem Or An Opportunity?

I can’t recall the exact wording on the short-lived post that found its way into my personal feed on Secret, the anonymish sharing app, the other day. But the illustrative image behind it was less easy to forget.

It depicted a naked trio, consisting of a guy and two girls. Let’s just call them ‘entangled.’ The secret’s poster claimed to have kissed two female colleagues, and was anticipating the prospect of a similar threesome landing in his own private life.

The highly graphic screenshot did stand out — and likely explains why this Secret vanished into the ether pretty quickly. But the adult sentiment didn’t, because Secret’s content has become increasingly sexualised of late. And the majority of these textually smutty posts are sticking around (at least in my feed).

It’s been a few weeks since Secret launched in the U.K., where I live, and over that time the content appearing in my feed has evolved from tedious confessions about binge eating junk food to sex-related stuff, including some pretty hardcore sentiments.

And no, it’s not just UK Secret users who are keen to share the thoughts tangling up their sheets. My US TC colleagues report similarly plentiful sexy stuff clogging up their own personal Secret channels.

As one  colleague put it: “My feed is about 80% polyamory, threesomes, kink and ‘boned at work just now’. Then about 18% startup gossip and about 2% honest, heartfelt stuff.”secret

Secret does vary for every user since its delivery algorithm is tailored to your contacts and their networks. (Co-founder and CEO David Byttow will only say this much on the algorithm’s inner workings when I ask: “We don’t talk about how it works other than everyone has a unique experience depending on a number of factors, such as language, geography and, most importantly, whoever is in your friends.”)

And while it’s possible that tech journalists have an especially freaky group of friends, it seems fairly unlikely that we’re the only Secret users fielding a lot of smut. Sure we’re obvious outliers on the startup gossip front. But sex? Interest in sex is by no means bounded within circles of tech hacks, so it’s not surprising that sex-focused content might find a general outlet on Secret. Indeed, it would be way more odd if an anonymish secret-sharing app didn’t end up skewing towards some sexy stuff.

Video-sharing app Vine had a premature porn problem in its early days. It upped its age rating to 17+ and added some additional filtering to knock that on the head. But a video app obviously has more immediate reason for concern about graphic content than an app designed for quasi-anonymous sharing of secrets.

For Secret, sex and adult themes may well present a manageable opportunity to build engagement and traction, since feeds are by definition personal — if not entirely private — and one person’s freaky is another person’s fruity, so to speak. And, well let’s face it, sex confessions are far more interesting than people talking about midnight binging on Krispy Kremes.

Careful management is required, though. None of the investors I contacted to ask about this wanted to comment about Secret and sex. And Secret’s app is age-rated 13, which does mean some of its users are underage — so it needs to be sure those users are seeing age-appropriate content. A Secret spokeswoman tells TechCrunch it has no plans to increase its age rating.

Secret does certainly have rules about what’s allowed and not allowed within the app. And pornographic content is absolutely not permitted within its community guidelines. But it obviously doesn’t have a problem with sexy stuff, which is as it should be. The rise of anonymish apps gives users of more mainstream social networks like Facebook an outlet for thoughts they can’t post elsewhere.

Still, that means Secret is going to have to do a fair bit of decision-making along sexualized lines to determine what’s just a blowing-off-steam sexy confessional and what’s out-and-out off-limits pornography that needs to be swiftly ejected.

The Secret spokeswoman declined to specify exactly how Secret defines pornographic content, saying that the startup is adhering to best-practice industry guidelines on that front; she says the sort of content that would be flagged on Facebook or Instagram will likewise be flagged on Secret.

She did add that it’s not just visual stuff that can be classed as porn by Secret’s moderators. So a particularly graphic text-based Secret could still violate its guidelines. But who knows exactly what that would say.secret

On the moderation front, Secret says it has recently hired former staffers from Facebook and BuzzFeed to join its team — and is tooling up on that front.

“Our moderation team reviews all flagged posts and also reviews content for any clear violations of our policy,” adds Byttow. “As we’ve seen explosive growth in the U.S. and abroad, our team is ramping up quickly to scale and make sure that all content on Secret meets our guidelines.”

Plus, there are already tools within Secret that enable users to tweak the content they see — swipe left on a particular secret and a menu slides into view with options to subscribe to a secret, or to flag it or remove it from your stream. Flagging is for stuff you think Secret should be removing from its community entirely, not just your own feed. Asking to remove something from your own feed means you’re training the algorithm about the type of content you want to see — or, even, about a particular user whose content might not be for you. Secret says it’s doing more around that learning aspect of its algorithm. But again it’s related to the special-delivery sauce that Byttow isn’t keen to go (too) into.

These user-tweaking tools aren’t as immediately obvious as they could be. So highlighting those features is perhaps something Secret could work on — especially given that the network a Secret user gets is not one they actively choose in the way they can on Twitter, for instance. The secrets you see depend on the friends in your phone book.

The app does filter and flag some stuff automatically. If you compose a Secret in a way that suggests you’re writing something unpleasant about a particular individual, it can pop up a message to warn you to consider what you might be about to post.

And for all the plentiful smut I’m seeing, my Secret feed is refreshingly light on malicious content, which looks promising for its anonymity-with-limits model in terms of keeping the most vicious digital trolling at bay (albeit it’s still very early days for Secret, which is a mere five months old).

Another new addition to the app is a two-stream feed that separates content generated directly by friends and friends of friends from the wider pool. Now called ‘Explore,’ it pulls in stuff more tenuously connected to you, i.e. secrets that might have been hearted by friends of friends, so written by people in their networks rather than yours.

Again that gives Secret users a way to manage the content they are seeing by, say, opting to focus mostly on friends’ stuff — assuming people with a more direct connection to them are going to be posting the sort of content they actually want to read (which of course may not be the case).

Secret says it will continue to develop tools — on the back and front ends of the app — to give users more control over the content that arrives in their feeds and help them to see content they’re interested in.

On that front — coming later today, in fact — is an opt-out button that will be offered within the “Manage Account” view to allow users to block NSFW content. (Update: Secret has confirmed the ‘Don’t show me NSFW content from outside my network’ opt-out has now been rolled out.)

“We’re evolving and making constant changes,” says Byttow. “What you’re reporting on is something we’ve already been working on and likely obsolete by now, or will be in the very near future.”

Whether Secret comes up with a problem-free system for filtering certain content on its platform that certain users don’t want to (or shouldn’t) see remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: This app is in a complex, long-term relationship with adult content.