The rise of Facebook has made using a “real world” identity required in many parts of the Internet today.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckeberg’s mission to make the world more “open and connected” means that people increasing use their real identity to share photos, interact with others and buy things online. And some people are increasingly comfortable doing so. Many new mobile apps and new websites now use Facebook as a fast way to log-in and gather information about users.
Companies like Airbnb are using real identity on the Web to make sure users are safe when they travel to strangers’ homes. The Facebook verification is a key part of establishing trust for such sharing economy companies. Travelers can see that a user is a normal person, not, say, a psychopath. Airbnb has also gone beyond Facebook to add another layer of identity verification, wherein people have to upload a photo of their driver’s license or passport to be verified.
While it increases transparency and safety and improves virality among new apps, the growth of this real-world identity in many aspects of online life is creating a quickly-growing opposite impulse. It’s an intriguing effect of Facebook that creates two divergent social webs: one completely tied to real identity, and another that is completely anonymous.
Particularly among the younger demographic, people are looking for an anonymous way to interact with their peers, express themselves, talk about difficult subjects or just have fun. But they don’t want that activity to be attached to their name and be seen by friends and family, coworkers or potential employers, or be attached to their identity forever.
A quickly growing app, Whisper, launched May 2012 and offers an anonymous way for people to express secrets or other thoughts, which can be serious or funny. Los Angeles-based Whisper, even more than Snapchat (the ultra-hot app that just raised $60 million), is the anti-Facebook.
With Whisper, there is nothing attached to your name. But in other respects it looks like Instagram or Facebook. Its popularity is driven by its anonymity, according to Whisper cofounder Michael Heyward. The app has been on fire, with 1.8 billion page views in the app in the last month. Average users open the app six to eight time per day. The app has been downloaded about 2 million times.
“With all the social platforms–Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin–the core motivation there behind content publishing is ego and vanity,” says Heyward. “Let me show you the best version of me. Only the really good stuff. We felt there was big whitespace the on Web around giving people a place to share express themselves more freely. It’s the ability to share a lot of that content that they may not normally share.”
People create a Whisper by selecting an image from the app’s image library or uploading a photo and then writing a short thought. It could be something embarrassing that they don’t want their friends to know, like “I’m on the football team but I’m gay.” Or it could be an introspective thought that someone’s friends may not like, such as, “I secretly don’t like the fact that my friends are all getting married and turning into boring people.” Others on the app include: “My daughter doesn’t know that she’s not my biological child.”
The app’s popularity is driven by the authenticity of the messages. “People crave authenticity. They don’t connect anymore,” he says. ”Whereas on Facebook you compare yourself with my highlight reel. Here it’s all behind the scenes. There’s a shared experience.”
People can “like” (it’s a heart icon) the Whisper or reply publicly with a Whisper of their own. The community on Whisper is heavily engaged. Many of the popular Whispers get thousands of hearts. Users can also chat with the person privately (though again, identities are not revealed).
The chat functionality has been very popular, Heyward says. Each day there are millions of private messages sent. And 20% of messages started more than two weeks prior, which means people are engaging with others over a long period of time and getting to know them. And more than 80% of messages are within 20 miles, indicating that often people are chatting with others in the same community. (They can find Whispers that are nearby in the “Nearby” tab.)
“These shared secrets–that really resonates with a lot of people,” says Jeremy Liew, venture capitalist at Whisper investor Lightspeed Venture Partners, which also was an early investor in Snapchat. “These real conversations start to happen. It’s a new form of mobile social media that is quite antithetical to what Facebook stands for.”
In keeping with the anonymity, there are no profile pages on Whisper. You can only send a message to someone when they have created a Whisper. You can go back and chat with people you’ve chatted with before. But Whisper has intentionally made the app revolve around content, not around identity that profiles would entail.
Whisper, which raised $3 million in funding from Lightspeed Venture Partners and others, has been especially popular on college campuses, where the app pierces students’ perceptions that their friends’ lives are “perfect” and much better than their own, Heyward says.
In the early days of the Internet, anonymity ruled in chat rooms and message boards. It still has remained popular on sites like 4chan and Fmylife. (Indeed you could argue that the interest in an anonymous web has never disappeared. But it has become less popular amidst the growth of Facebook.) The early days of the Internet resulted in a largely negative connotation towards anonymity, but Heyward believes that is shifting as anonymity is coming back into fashion. The recent revelations about NSA monitoring of phone and Internet activity only increase concerns about privacy, he says. “Anonymity equalled trolls in peoples’ minds. Or someone coming after your kids in chat rooms,” he says. “Now it’s going back to anonymity.”
There are a number of spins on anonymous (or non-trackable) social apps that have grown in popularity recently. The most well-known example recently is Snapchat, the app that lets people send messages and photos that instantly disappear. While this isn’t anonymous–people send messages to friends–it has a similarity with Whisper in that Snapchat does not leave a record (with some exceptions) that can be tracked back to a person. Another app, Rando, lets people send a random photo to a random person and receive a photo back in exchange–all anonymously. The only thing the other person knows about you is the city you are in.
Whisper was spun out of TigerText, the disappearing text messaging service that has some similarities to Snapchat. Heyward previously worked there, and Brad Brooks, cofounder of Whisper, is cofounder and president of TigerText.
It’s also worth noting that Snapchat, Whisper and Tumblr all did not focus on Facebook integration–and all are located outside of Silicon Valley. Snapchat and Whisper are in Southern California and Tumblr is in New York. In Silicon Valley, developers generally see Facebook integration as a given. But outside of Silicon Valley developers may see things differently and build their apps appropriately.