The Cathartic Power of an Internet Whisper
I'm obsessed with miley Cyrus.
Im so jealous of people with perfect skin
Sometimes I sit on the toilet longer than needed just because I'm on my phone.
I didn't write any of those statements. I don't know who did. I'm too embarrassed to tell you whether I relate to them.
They all come from Whisper, an app that allows you to anonymously write secrets atop images (found through the service or personally uploaded) and respond to similarly anonymous posts by others. Launched in 2012, Whisper has recently garnered attention in the news media, including a great piece yesterday by New York Magazine's Kevin Roose.
Why are people excited about Whisper, which reminds many of the older, less technologically advanced PostSecret project/blog?
- It has raised a lot of venture capital: "The company has raised a total of $24 million from investors that include Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Trinity Ventures, Shoedazzle founder Brian Lee, and Flixster’s Joe Greenstein," Ryan Lawler wrote last month on TechCrunch.
- It drives immense traffic: "The app gets more page views per month -- over 3 billion, according to the company -- than LinkedIn, Wordpress, and Upworthy combined," wrote Roose. "During peak hours, Whisper gets twenty submissions per second."
- It has made some big hires: As AdAge reported, last week, Eric Yellin, previously vice president of marking and distribution at Hulu, began work at Whisper as senior VP-content, with responsibility for getting material from the app onto third-party apps and websites.
But the really, really, really big news is that Whisper peeled viral savant Neetzan Zimmerman away from Gawker. For the uninitiated, Zimmerman is a traffic-producing phenom at Gawker, where he has frequently attracted more traffic than all other writers -- there seem to be about 20 -- combined.
Zimmerman will become Whisper's editor-in-chief, which makes you wonder whether the app's users should now be considered "writers" or, better yet, "reporters." Such details are no doubt unimportant to Zimmerman, who doesn't seem to care much whether content is repulsive, depraved or tragic so long as it has the potential to go viral.
Here, from Zimmerman's manifesto, published shortly after he joined Gawker, is a brief taste of the sensibility he brings to Whisper: "Once you've established the viral probability of a video or an image or an idea using the methods outlined above, the 'why' is no longer important," he explained. "In the end, the Internet will always tell you what you need to know because it is a digital extension of the world writ large, and out there, as in here, the greatest story will always be retold." From a recent Wall Street Journal profile: "Though his job wouldn't be possible without the Internet, he has found a gap for human intuition in an environment dominated by machines." And from the Gawker memo to staff announcing Zimmerman's departure: "WELP. Neetzan Zimmerman, the Editor of the Internet, is leaving Gawker." (See also the opening sentence of the penultimate paragraph, which conveys the desperation of losing Zimmerman, though it uses multiple words I cannot reprint here.)
- It marks both evolution and backtracking in online sharing: "For years on the web, anonymity was the default mode. The rise of Facebook solidified the single-identity Internet, in which people use their real names to post content, listen to music on Spotify and do all things Internet. The de-anonymization of the Internet was a boon for opponents of cyber-bullying and other dangerous behaviors, but it also created a performative impulse,” Roose wrote. “Whisper is one of the organizations trying to reclaim the transparency that anonymity can breed."
There's an emotional aspect to this all. The Los Angeles Times's Jessica Naziri discussed Whisper in May: "For users, there’s the promise of something almost cathartic and emancipating about putting into words an unknown fact, jokes, inspirational moments, secret doubts, challenges overcome, and so on, that you might not have thought you could face, and sharing it with the world -- all while not having it tied to their real identity."
The service Whisper offers users appears to be exactly that: catharsis. We now want the Internet and social media to not only connect, amuse and inform us, but also to offer us relief. Release may come from a selfie self-destructing in seconds a la Snapchat or from watching uplifting content a la Upworthy. Or it may come from anonymously sharing a guilty pleasure or embarrassing secret atop a photo.
Its cathartic power has made the app popular not only among young women (there are many of them, some of whom eagerly seek "companionship"), but also among active-duty soldiers. A Business Insider piece in May noted that "many of its users are also in the military, including thousands who are actively serving in Afghanistan." In a Forbes article last week by Lori Kozlowski, Whisper co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Michael Heyward said about 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan use the service.
What do soldiers write? Here's a sample:
I made it home from Afghanistan my best friend didn't.
As a soldier I can't stand when civilians talk about the war like they understand it.
I'm in the military, my girlfriend died after giving birth to my son. I don't know whether to put him up for adoption or quit the military. I really don't want to put him up for a adoption.
Yes, it's impossible to know whether these are real soldiers or real secrets. Yes, there are also people on the site seeking "military men" or "military ladies." But it seems eminently plausible that Whisper is a refuge for some fighting overseas -- as well as for a host of young adults fighting their own personal demons.
According to Business Insider, in addition to more than 30 full-time employees, Whisper pays dozens of people in the Philippines to moderate posts and comments. All Things D explained in an August piece: "When a post comes through that seems like a cry for help from someone suffering from an eating disorder, mental illness or self-harm, it is removed from public view and watermarked with the words 'Your Whisper has been heard' and the user is invited to talk to someone about their problems by calling Your Voice, a companion non-profit that the startup set up in its early days."
Things can get ugly. One man was accused of using the app to lure a 12-year-old to a hotel for sex. Allegations of bullying and harassment on the app are the basis of a Change.org petition. There are reasonable questions about the veracity of posts and about just how anonymous an anonymous post can ever be.
But, especially with Zimmerman leading the way, it seems our most closely held secrets and deepest, darkest admissions have a real shot at going viral. The question -- and Roose gets at this -- is whether we will be true to our anonymous selves or whether they too will seek out fame and praise. The inevitable corollary: Will the liberation that comes with "whispering" ever be more than just virtual?
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)