March 24th, 2014
The newest app Secret: the bully’s playground
Name-Calling in the Virtual Playground
by Nick Bilton, New York Times, March 23, 2014
Silicon Valley sometimes feels like high school. It has its alpha types and its outcasts, its bullies and its bullied.
That, anyway, is one takeaway from the recent flap over Secret, a six-week-old social app that connects people anonymously. Secret has apparently put the Valley in touch with its inner 10th grader and become a cyber-schoolyard for all manner of gossips and trolls inside the technology industry. The blowback has been swift.
Veronica Belmont, a video host and technology writer, promptly hung up on the app. “Deleted the app Secret,” Ms. Belmont wrote in early February.
Aaron Durand, a photographer, soon followed. “It’s not me, it’s you,” Mr. Durand tweeted a few days later. Many others followed suit.
“I don’t need that kind of hate in my life,” one entrepreneur told me. “It’s like high school all over again.”
If this is what happens in the temples of American technology, think what will happen when Secret and similar apps hit real high schools and middle schools. Parents, you have been warned.
The founders of Secret, Chrys Bader-Wechseler and David Byttow, told me that they saw the potential pitfalls and were trying to find ways to prevent cyberbullying over their app before it finds its way to youngsters. They said Secret was supposed to help people, not hurt them.
And yet the dangers of these types of apps are clear. Cyberbullying is bad enough when you know who is doing the bullying. It can be even worse when the source is cloaked by design. Last year, nine teen suicides were linked to bullying on Ask.fm, a website that lets people ask questions and leave comments anonymously.
The issue became so severe that Ask.fm hired Mishcon de Reya, a law firm based in London, to conduct an independent review of the site. That, in turn, prompted Ask.fm, which is based in Latvia, to create tools that give users the ability to turn off questions from anonymous users, block unwanted users and report offensive content.
Ilja Terebin, chief executive of Ask.fm, said that the company was aware of the challenges but that young people needed places to express their views privately.
“On one hand, we have to deliver a value for our users, which includes free speech and uninhibited communication,” Mr. Terebin said. “On the other hand, we must ensure that the most vulnerable groups of our users receive sound support and protection.”
But how can we offer people — adults and teens alike — anonymity without encouraging bad behavior? A lot of experiments are underway. A new social app called Facefeed lets people share photos, but only allows people to discuss the photos in a private message. Shots, a social app for selfies, has forgone a comment system altogether. “With comments, kids can be humiliated in front of a large audience,” said John Shahidi, a founder of Shots.
Yik Yak, which is similar to Secret and lets people post anonymously to their friends, said last week that it was banning middle and high school students and that it would disable the service around schools.
Yik Yak has reportedly been used to taunt students and make bomb threats, raising concern among school authorities. Susan Opferman, the principal of Webb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta., Ga., recently warned parents in a letter: “Yik Yak posts can be especially vicious and hurtful, since there is no way to trace their source.”
To reduce negative comments, Secret has said that it is adding features that detect when people’s names are typed into in messages and warn those who would include them to “think before they post.” Users also have the ability to ban those who trash-talk others.
“The majority of the content on the app is positive and friendly,” said Mr. Bader-Wechseler, Secret’s chief product and design lead. “We have to be realistic. We’re living in a world that is not a utopia, and we need to make sure we’re taking all the right steps to make sure that the good outweighs the evil.”
For now, Mr. Bader-Wechseler said, the company is learning what not to do when the app does fall into the hands of children. But it’s unclear if the app has already been infused with the DNA of bullies and those bullied. And, if so, if it’s possible to change that.
I asked Mr. Terebin at Ask.fm if he had any advice for Secret and other anonymous apps. He said these services should build moderating systems and empower users to report bad behavior.
“This means that companies must invest in their safety protocols from the very beginning,” Mr. Terebin said.
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