Power & Accountability

So there’s this hot new app called Secret. The app is really clever: it prompts you to share secrets, and it sends those secrets to your social circle. It doesn’t identify you directly to your friends. Instead, it tells readers that this secret was written by one of their friends without identifying which one. The popularity of the app appears to be off the charts, with significant venture-capital investment in a short period of time. There are amazing stories of people seeking out emotional support on Secret, and awful stories of bullying that have caused significant uproar. Secret has recently released features aimed at curbing bullying.

My sense is that the commentary to date is missing the mark. There’s talk of the danger of anonymous speech. Even the founders of Secret talk about their app like it’s anonymous speech:

“Anonymity is a really powerful thing, and with that power comes great responsibility. Figuring out these issues is the key to our long-term success, but it’s a hard, hard problem and we are doing the best we can.”

And this is certainly true: we’ve known for a while that anonymous speech can reveal the worst in people. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Posts on Secret are not anonymous. Posts on Secret are guaranteed to be authored by one of your friends. That guarantee is enabled and relayed by the Secret platform. That’s a very different beast than anonymity.

In general, if you seek good behavior, Power and Accountability need to be connected: the more Power you give someone, the more you hold them Accountable. Anonymity can be dangerous because it removes Accountability. That said, anonymity also removes some Power: if you’re not signing your name to your statement, it carries less weight. With Secret, Accountability is absent, just like with anonymous speech, but the power of identified speech remains in full force. That leads to amazing positive experiences: people can share thoughts of suicide with friends who can help, all under the cloak of group-anonymity that is both protecting and empowering. And it leads to disastrous power granted to bullies attacking their victims with the full force of speaking with authority – the bully is one of their friends! – while carrying zero accountability. That kind of power is likely to produce more bullies, too.

This is so much more potent that anonymity. And if this fascinating experiment is to do more good than harm, it will need to seriously push the envelope on systems for Accountability that are on par with the power Secret grants.

Here’s a free idea, straight out of crypto land. In cryptographic protocols that combine a need for good behavior with privacy/anonymity protections, there is often a trigger where bad behavior removes the anonymity shield. What if Secret revealed the identity of those users found to be in repeated violation of a code of good behavior? Would the threat of potential shame keep people in line, leaving the good uses intact while disincentivizing the destructive ones?