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Your secret is “safe” with us

New apps promise anonymity

A new generation of anonymous social networks is sweeping the country. Secret, Whisper, and Yik Yak have become popular smart phone apps on many college campuses but like other gossip sites, such as Juicy Campus, that have come and gone, it is difficult to discern the actual utility in the midst of all the trolling, threats and slander.

In the case of Yik Yak, a smart phone App that allows users to post anonymous information within a 1.5 mile radius of their current location, there have been numerous reports of cyberbullying and worse. According to The Birmingham News, campus police at the University of North Alabama received word that someone using the service had posted that they were going to “shoot up the school.” This followed another Birmingham News report about a Yik Yak user who threatened to open fire on his high school, but in this case the company worked with authorities and turned over phone records leading to an arrest. Despite all this, Yik Yak last week received $1.5 million in venture capital to expand its operation, according to Tech Crunch.

Yik Yak charges users a fee to expand their 1.5 mile reach. Started by two University of Furman students to serve as a message board type service for college students, Yik Yak was quickly picked up by middle school and high school students who used it for cyberbullying purposes. Tech Crunch has reported that the company has since erected geo-fences around nearly all U.S. middle and high schools. It remains unclear how this will help once students step outside the boundaries of those “geo fences.”

Whisper seeks to solve the TMI problem that has plagued Facebook and Twitter by providing an anonymous service that allows users to overlay a text message on a greeting card like background. It’s apparently working. The Atlantic reports that Whisper receives 2.5 billion page views per month and has raised $51 million in venture capital.

Whisper claims to prevent cyberbullying by having teams of human monitors patrolling its posts. These monitors also search for anything that can become news and have teamed with Buzzfeed to push out information. The Huffington Post claims that the site is being frequented by a large number of cheating spouses -- no word on whether Whisper supplies cold showers for those “human monitors” to offset obvious challenges . . . .

And then there’s Secret. This app allows users to share their secrets with people on their contact lists, friends of friends or publicly. The post will literally say shared by a “friend” or “friend of a friend” which, of course, leads to endless speculation and has made it popular with college students, Silicon Valley techies and journalists. Secret, invented by two former Google engineers, has raised more than $8 million in venture capital. Like Whisper, Secret hopes to break news and has possible utility in politics and as a public relations tool in other vocations.

WikiLeaks and NSA leaker Edward Snowden have caused a spike in public interest over private information in the last few years. Trolling, defaming or just outright lying are the obvious downsides to anonymous apps, and the jury is out on how this will strike balance with its potential to provide a more transparent and less secret society. Like it or not, this is how the Internet is evolving, and it may well be impossible for any of these new companies to promise absolute anonymity. So remember, you are responsible for what you post, and your secrets are their product.