Post-Secret Gets An App — Can a Social Network be Built on Anonymity?

Have a secret? There’s a social network for that. PostSecret releases new app.

Have a secret? There’s a social network for that. PostSecret releases new app.

PostSecret is a mail in art project originally created by Frank Warren in 1995. The concept is simple; Frank posted his address on the web and encouraged people to send him anonymous secrets on homemade postcards. He selects secrets and then posts them on the PostSecret website. The results are mind blowing. Everything from the humorous to the deeply touching, the secrets are snapshots of humanity. In fact, the results are so impressive that PostSecret has expanded beyond an art project to become a full fledged business complete with books, and now an app.

The new iPhone app is already on Apple’s top-20 list of best selling paid applications, and more than 100,000 secrets have been shared so far. The app allows users to share secrets anonymously and also includes a new feature: Users can “pin” their secret to a location (while still remaining anonymous).

In an article with CNN, Warren notes that: “”It’s super organic, so we don’t know what kind of conversations are going to emerge. We don’t know how people are going to use it.” However, in the article it suggest that Warren envisions the PostSecrets app as a kind of alternative social network “a way of shining light on these hidden parts of ourselves, and in some ways sharing secrets as commerce and currency.”

While Warren hasn’t fleshed out the “how” he also seems to envision the new geographical feature added by the app as a kind of data generator for certain locations, and he is already imagining how that data could be used most positively: “We notice at a certain campus, perhaps, a lot of students are struggling with issues of abuse or eating disorder or stress … there’s a way we can talk to that school and have them offer more of their resources to students, or make them aware of what’s available to help.”

While in many ways the PostSecrets app is a natural fit for social media (before Twitter, brevity was perhaps most creatively used on the post card), the idea of an anonymous social network raises questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet and of social media as a medium.

One of the Internet’s most debated features is its potential for anonymity. One never knows if the person tweeting, commenting or blogging is really who they say they are. However, the majority of social media giants have eschewed anonymity in favour of connections. From MySpace to Facebook to Google+ social networks have taken the exact opposite approach; in fact, more and more, social networking sites are demanding that users are who they say they are. For example, Google+ and Quora encourage users to use their real names.  While there’s been some outcry about such features, generally speaking, social networkers value knowing who is on the other end of conversations.

So, the question becomes: can an alternative social network, hinged on anonymity, be successful? It’s too early to say if PostSecrets will become truly successful, but the number of early users suggests that some people may crave alternatives to witty “about me” sections and profile pictures. Is the social media enthusiast’s biggest secret that they occasionally wish to post a status update that only strangers can see?