In the past months, several apps like Secret or Whisper have appeared. These apps let you publish anonymously to friends in your circle or to the whole internet. Others, like SnapChat, let you send ephimerous photos and messages that vanish after 10 seconds of being opened by the receipient.
Is this one of those inflection moments where a new trend is appearing? Because this apps are growing millions of users. And established players didn’t see them coming. Otherwise, Facebook1 or WhatsApp would have developed some similar feature first.
Lowering the barriers to creating content
As Andrew Chen writes, the primary audience of any social product is a large group of passive consumers who just want to flip through cool photos, videos, tweets, and more, maybe commenting or linking a few they really feel strongly about2.
Content creation is in the heart of any social app. If it’s easy to create compelling content, then that content is quickly shared to other networks, driving viral growth back to its source.
In this context, anonymity dramatically lowers the cost of creating content. Share what you really think, without worrying about what other people will think of you.
Anonimity lowers the barrier for users to leave the network
Social networks, however, are all about connections, even if most of your connections are passive consumers of content. Saying things without being accountable may be fun for a while. Reading such posts may be cool for some time. But if you want to establish relationships and connections, anonymity may be an obstacle. (Does anybody like Facebook suggested posts?) And a less mentioned effect, anonymous posting also lowers the barrier for users to leave the network, because the bond between a user and her circle is weak. Such is human nature, anonymity does not help to forge relations or connecting with others.
Anonymity breeds meanness –the Internet has proven this time and time again. People are willing to say nice or neutral things with their name attached–they need anonymity for mean things and things they are embarrassed about. In fact, the closer to real identity internet forums get, the less they seem to decay. Anonymous social networks have been (thus far, anyway) in the category of services that get worse as they get bigger–unlike services like Facebook or Twitter that get better as they get bigger.
Growth Rate vs Churn Rate
These anonymous services are growing because they are new and original. Their growth rate is grater than their churn rate… for now. The question is if they can keep it that way before burning all their funding. Or getting acquired5.
Snapchat is different. The service is not anonymous. It just leaves no trace. (At least on the user side.) This makes it attractive for frivolity-based posting, or for privacy-concerned users. My bet is that Snapchat will continue to be a major player, while full-anonymous services will have a difficult time surviving.
Chris Poole, founder of 4Chan, an anonymous community with several years of existance, says that anonymity facilitates honest discourse, creates a level playing field for ideas to be heard, and enables creativity like none other. (The anonymity I know). I think that 4Chan is an exception, and not a mainstream community. ↩
PostSecret, a similar service, decided to close in 2012 because abusive content –pornographic, gruesome, and threatening material– from a small group of users was overwhelming and causing users to complain to the company… and to the FBI. ↩
Maybe their business model is really growing a huge user base and selling it to a third party. ↩