We live in a culture obsessed with information—celeb gossip, rapper beefs, sports scandals, Internet minutiae, bizarre local news stories. But what if you could share information, say, like a deep, dark, secret, and no one knew it was you? Well, now you can.
Someone is going to be proposed to.
Someone quit their job making $140,000 a year to spend more time “volunteering.”
A lot of people are worried they are going to be broken up with.
These are anonymous secrets you can learn from one of the newest category of iOS apps that encourage users to confess their most private secrets to an anonymous public. Whisper is the most widely known, allowing users to sloganize their confessions on top of images, creating an voyeuristic postcard, to which other users can add likes in the form of a heart-shaped icon, share through their various social networks, or reply directly to the person who created the post.
Secrets are usually the most boring mental possessions a person can have, and speculating about the reasons these small thoughts should be so prized leads to some dissociative qualities in the culture that surrounds us. It was inevitable that we should become obsessed with secrecy in the years after the Internet translated commerce, culture, and social exchange into searchable data logs. The omnipresence of the Internet has made us self-conscious of all the revelatory information we are producing even when unaware of doing so. We have responded by fixating on the control of information, wanting to curate identity through appearance instead of direct and prolonged relationships.
This was dimly visible in the revulsion over “too much information” being made public in the early 2000s, a time in which the Internet hadn’t fully developed its moderating social norms. In response to the freedom to publish without the ethical oversight of the paper publishing industry, the only reliable way to project authority was to refer to a common sense of decency. This pathos gave way to the intensifying fears of spoilers. What mattered most was not the content of a show or book or movie, but its unpredictability.
The app is a coup de grace against the idea of friendship as an honest and mutually accepting system of intimacy, and instead assumes, with good reason, that most people relate to others through a murk of self-doubt and fear of rejection.
We began to seek in media reassurances that the world was not as predictable and formulaic as it seemed, and that there could always be on more revelation squeezed in before the end, while justifying the desire to remain a passive member of an audience rather than an acting member in a social group. The most futile form of this impulse comes in the anxiety about online privacy and surveillance, which posits that, rather than confront the powers that exploit people’s data on the Internet, one has a moral obligation to defend one’s self and take personal accountability while taking the existence of exploitive powers as an unchangeable reality.
All of these reactions are prologue to secrets finally becoming consumer goods, a period in which people are so isolated and mistrustful of one another they withdraw the most mundane facts of their existence, which gives them a new aura of taboo and transgression. Secret is the newest app to follow in Whisper’s footsteps, drawing the circle of private information into a cryptic puzzle of intimacy. The app asks for access to the user’s personal contacts, checks which of those people are also Secret users, and then lists all of their posts in an anonymous stream. The app is a coup de grace against the idea of friendship as an honest and mutually accepting system of intimacy, and instead assumes, with good reason, that most people relate to others through a murk of self-doubt and fear of rejection. It creates a world where friendship is not a practice of committing to others in spite of their imperfections or repulsive particularities. Instead friendship becomes a mutual act of reassuring one’s self and others that neither has unforgivable flaws, which creates a self-fulfilling loop of insecurity because of the obvious self-deception this requires.
Demanding our relationships form around unattainable ideals makes it possible to cull surprises from within the depths of those around us. While the production of television shows and their ability to conceive of surprising new twists are always limited by time and money, we can now sell one another endless plot twists, cliff hangers, and revelations by agreeing to withhold parts of our thoughts or experiences that are, otherwise, entirely unpredictable.
Just as the uncertainty created by a movie mystery depends not on its plot specifics, but in ensuring there is enough room for audience speculation—always wilder and more inventive than the story itself—apps like Whisper and Secret depend on all of us having accepted a culture of social propriety and self-delusion. In valuing the affect of revelation over the long and undramatic process of reckoning and resolution, apps like Whisper and Secret encourage us to further pull away from one another, only to create space to fill in with suspicion, intrigue, and entertainment for someone else to make money on.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.