Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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April 8, 2014, 10 a.m.

How some journalists are using anonymous secret-sharing apps

Some want to find juicy gossip, others want to surface juicy emotions — either way, there’s value for publishers in popular apps Whisper and Secret.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s divorce from rock star husband Chris Martin is not an event with great civic impact. But it’s big news to the many writers whose salaries depend on highly trafficked stories about celebrities, as well as to the massive audience that loves to read them.

What’s interesting, however, is that while the couple’s uncoupling was officially announced on Paltrow’s personal website, rumors of trouble in the water started circulating weeks before. In February, Gawker’s Lacey Donohue reported on its Hollywood vertical Defamer that a user on the anonymous app Whisper was accusing Paltrow of cheating on her husband. Neetzan Zimmerman, who left Gawker to become Whisper’s editorial director, says he was confident that the poster was a person with close ties to Paltrow.

But whether or not the rumor was true, there’s something to what one Gawker reader wrote in the comments:

future of journalism lacey

Gossip mongering in anonymous social networks isn’t the future of journalism, but it sure seems to be part of it. Journalism has long debated the merits of anonymous sourcing — witness the latest hubbub at The New York Times — but at least in those cases the reporter (and hopefully the editor) know the identity of the speaker. Apps like Whisper take the blind item to a whole new level of blindness. It makes sense that anonymous apps, whose purported purpose is to give users a place to share their innermost feelings and frustrations, could have a second life in the news business.

Right now, the two apps leading in that space are Whisper, which has been around about a year and half and boasts a staff of 30, and newcomer Secret. Neither app has released its number of active users, but at this point, Whisper’s seems much larger, with 3.5 billion views a month. The biggest difference between the two is that, on Whisper, everyone can see all posted content. On Secret, each user sees only one feed, which is personalized based on contacts from their cell phone.

secret vs whisper

These differences may seem minor, but in practice, they make information gathering on the two platforms fundamentally different. Journalists are already finding a variety of ways to take advantage.

Whisper, BuzzFeed, and mining the Internet for sentiment

At Whisper, 90 percent of the employees are developers. “Before they brought me on, they didn’t have anyone looking at the actual posts,” says Zimmerman. “They were working on product all the time.” When Zimmerman left Gawker, few in the media world knew what Whisper was, and fewer understood why an anonymous messaging app required an editor. But Zimmerman has high hopes both for what Whisper can deliver to publishers and for the app as a news product itself.

Zimmerman sees Whisper as an almost unending generator of fresh content. Users type messages, add an image, and share them publicly, with no author name or handle attached. Other users can then reply to the content or message them directly. The subject matter is overwhelmingly personal, even intimate. “It seems a shame that content should get lost and decay, when it could be exported to live on a publisher’s website,” Zimmerman says.

Whisper recently announced a content partnership with BuzzFeed and is also already collaborating on posts with The Huffington Post. Zimmerman says more partnership announcements are forthcoming, some of which will be made on BuzzFeed. He’s already begun using their website to demonstrate some of what is possible for storytelling with Whisper. In a post titled 5 Things Whisper Can Tell Us About America’s Top Party Schools, Zimmerman surfaces trends around colleges and drinking discovered by analyzing Whisper’s raw data, which is organized by tags and location.

There’s something contradictory in an anonymous app called Whisper that ultimately wants to publish the juiciest tidbits its users create for the enjoyment of a mass audience. But Zimmerman says users are aware that, at the end of the day, what they post to Whisper is public. “At this point, we have publishers coming in and already sifting through the content for their own purposes, without our involvement,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is make that process easier for them.”

For BuzzFeed, that means a couple of things. Right now, only the Whisper staff has the capacity to search all of the data at once; their partnership means BuzzFeed has access to that feature. “It’s hard to find things as a user,” says BuzzFeed’s Summer Anne Burton. Now, when a member of her staff finds something interesting on Whisper, they can call the company and ask them to search for similar content — for example, 21 Things All Cat Owners Secretly Think Sometimes. (I said interesting, not earth-shattering.)

For the time being, BuzzFeed won’t be using Whisper to report news. “We are thinking about it in terms of entertaining, BuzzTeam, basically fun list-type posts, not breaking news,” says Burton. (For those unfamiliar with what BuzzFeed calls its BuzzTeam: “BuzzTeam makes entertainment and experiments with formats — that can include storytelling, lists, quizzes, games, and whatever is next.” That’s as distinct from its more traditional news operation.) “I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for what’s similar to what we’re doing, and what it reminds me of is embarrassing stories submitted by our readers.”

Of course, words like “submitted” and “public” can mean different things to different people. BuzzFeed was a prominent case study of those gaps in perception recently when it was criticized by some for republishing sensitive, personal tweets about sexual assault — even though BuzzFeed’s reporter reached out to most of the tweets’ authors before publishing. Whisper, like Twitter, is public, but amplifying that content still has impact for the reader. Burton says she would be certain to get in contact with Whisper users via direct message before republishing similar content.

There are a few different ways BuzzFeed is using Whisper to generate stories. For example, the app has a comment feature that Burton says some users have started using like a message board. When someone asked, What’s the weirdest food combination you’ve ever tried? BuzzFeed turned it into a list, 25 Weird Food Combinations You Might Just Have to Try. Another feature allows users to upload original images, which can have an almost newsworthy value — consider Katie Notopoulos’ post, Heartbreaking Military Confessions of Whisper. Geotagging shows that some of these posts are actually being made in places where the U.S. military is active.

“On Whisper, we have people, service members based in Afghanistan, in places Google Maps won’t go, talking about things in their daily lives — their difficulties, their regrets, things they could never divulge to their commanding officer,” says Zimmerman. “So they turn to Whisper.”

For now, Whisper, with its massive flow of emotionally charged content, is more useful for what the non-news producers at BuzzFeed are trying to do — build traffic by capturing “authentic emotion.” But, Burton adds, “I don’t think it’s out of the question that someday there will be some really interesting news that will break on Whisper, or that some source will be whispering about secret important things.”

Secret, Gawker, and leveraging gossip into news

Compared to Whisper, Secret is nascent — “not even 60 days old,” according to Sarahjane Sacchetti, who handles marketing for Secret. But despite its relative newness, one thing is clear: Secret is not interested in the publishing game. “We’re absolutely not looking at partnering with any sort of media company to be a platform for the content our users create,” says Secret cofounder David Byttow. “We’re much more about facilitating the conversation — not so much the secret itself, but what comes out of it.” On the surface, the two companies seem similar — because Secret is newer, it makes sense that they want to define themselves in opposition. “I would say ultimately, Whisper is a media company, and Secret is a communication company,” says Byttow.

But that hasn’t stopped tech reporters from taking advantage of the app for what it is. For Secret to be interesting, you have to have friends who are using it — or at least, you have to have saved the phone numbers of people who are using it in your contacts. For the time being, that means the majority of people actively engaging with each other on the app are in the tech industry, largely in the Bay Area and New York City.

As has been well documented, that’s led to quite a lot of industry gossip, some of it not exactly harmless. For reporters like Nitasha Tiku of Gawker’s Valleywag, that makes Secret pretty irresistible. “The camera roll on my iPhone used to be all screenshots of Instagram comments,” she says. “Now it’s all screenshots of Secret.”

Gawker has yet to break any news on Secret, though they have used posts to provide context and to fan flames. Tiku says users have openly stated their intent to use the app to mislead reporters, and indeed, within the first ten days, false rumors of Valley acquisitions were both ignited and summarily squelched. Still, gossip does have its place in the overall journalistic spectrum, especially at Gawker, where Nick Denton has always worn the gossip label with pride.

“I don’t have a negative connotation attached to gossip, particularly when it comes to the tech industry, because anything that’s not a regurgitated press release, they’ll dismiss as gossip,” says Tiku. “A lot of times it’s just what they don’t want talked about.” Says Tiku’s fellow Valleywag reporter Sam Biddle: “I’m still figuring out ways to use it as a deeper tool, but it’s good for testing the waters. If you see multiple posts about the same person, the same company, expressing the same sentiment, it’s not just one anonymous voice in the void. It starts to have a little more weight.”

For now, potential is all Secret has; users have even taken to joking about the app’s failure to predict major news in the tech sector.


But even if it’s not breaking news, Secret can give reporters a sense of broader trends in the culture. “It helps give you the texture of how people feel,” says Tiku.

Jenna Wortham, a tech reporter for The New York Times who has written about Secret, agrees. Nothing she’s seen on the app has radically altered her thinking about tech figures or companies, but she says “I do think it gives insight into what a community is thinking about.” Both Tiku and Biddle say they’ve started saving more phone numbers than they used to in hopes of expanding their networks — an unusual case of a new platform providing unexpected support for an old one.

But if the app fails to hold Silicon Valley’s notoriously fleeting attention and the technorati move their anonymous chatter elsewhere, the reporters will move on, too. “I would pay for Secret right now — I might not in a few months,” says Tiku. What Secret will look like in a few months is an unknown, including to its founders, who say they’re focusing on product and the short game for the time being.

But at Whisper, Zimmerman has big plans. “My intention will be to possibly set up a news unit at Whisper, which will be doing both investigative reporting, where they will be going out and finding a lead and then bringing them back to Whisper, but also mining existing content for potential stories,” he says. In addition, he wants to make Whisper’s API available to publishers, so they can analyze the data and create their own trend pieces. He’s also asked the engineers to create a feature that pushes out an alert every time a user uploads an original photo. Whether or not Whisper would charge media companies for these services Zimmerman didn’t know, saying matters of monetization are left to the business side of the team.

Anonymous sharing online is nothing new. Tiku points to Fucked Company as a predecessor to this idea; Reddit and 4chan are also, in their own ways, points of comparison. For BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and their ilk, Whisper is just another way to feed a voracious appetite for user generated content. For Gawker, Secret is a more ephemeral, third-party Kinja. But clearly, these apps are tapping into a desire for places to share private knowledge that might have value to the public — even if that value doesn’t move beyond mere titillation. Says Wortham: “The idea will stick around, even if the companies don’t.”

Photo by Anthony Gattine used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 8, 2014, 10 a.m.
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