Much of what I theorize below I learned from @JimScheinman of Maven Ventures. To be clear, these words are mine only and I do not speak for Jim. That said, he taught me a lot and I wouldn’t be able to write this post without our many lengthy conversations about consumer startups.
Earlier this month, David Byttow, CEO and co-founder of Secret, declared that he will be shutting down the anonymous social network. Plagued from the start with claims of bullying and copying, Secret never really had a fighting chance. Yes, the network proudly claimed up to 15M users and yes, Secret raised over $35M in funding… but as we know, both users and dollars alone are vanity metrics. They are powerful metrics that send positive signals, but vanity metrics nonetheless.
As the dust settles we must ask ourselves, what went wrong? Why did such a successful social network fail? Here are three theories:
- no attachment to one’s identity
- no sense of community
- no ability to connect on a direct and personal basis
Identity is one of the most important aspects of an online social network. Because online networks take us out of the physical world, we are only left with the online persona we build for ourself. And just like in the real world, we take pride in who we are online. As I choose my clothes and hairstyle, I also choose my avatar and profile bio. When I build this persona I am not only showing the network who I am, I am also taking time to invest in the network itself. If you remove this capability then you have essentially removed any incentive for me to return to protect my persona. You could delete the network tomorrow and I have lost nothing. Take for example Facebook. I have spent countless hours crafting my bio, choosing the right profile pic, and articulating my status updates. Why? Because this is who I am online. I am aware that I need to invest in this persona in order for it to be a true representation of who I am. The minute you make this anonymous, I spend less time investing… and consequently, caring about this profile.
The second reason why anon social networks fail is because there is no sense of community. Humans love to feel connected. They love to build bonds over mutual interests. When you remove the ability to identify the person you are engaging with, you have removed the sense of belonging and the sense of community. Secret, and other anonymous networks, has no sense of community. Of course many will point to Whisper as a counter example. They will show how successful it has been to date. Although they might be correct, I would argue that Whisper is the closest thing we have seen to a successful sense of community on an anonymous network. That is likely because the app does a good job of conveying a sense of community and subcommunities. Furthermore, are we even sure it is a ‘success’? We have yet to see any engagement numbers (unless I am mistaken?).
Finally, when you remove the ability to connect with people directly, on a personal basis, you make it really hard for people to feel a bond. In a crowd, whether online or in ‘real life’, many people feel lonelier than they would if they were with just one or two close friends. These close friendships are built overtime, with one-on-one connections… not in group chats or comment threads. Any network must allow for the ability to direct message each other and build friendships and conversations.
I don’t think for a second that I know all the answers. This is just a hypothesis. I’d love to be proven wrong.