Secret's CEO says he can keep your secrets (Q&A)

Secret-keeper-in-chief David Byttow talks about why people love the app, why the definition of "secret" changes on the Internet, and whether people are jerks.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
9 min read

David Byttow, Secret CEO: "First of all, you have to define what a secret means." Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Everyone's got secrets, and the co-founder of the secret-sharing app Secret, David Byttow, believes that most people want to share them.

And even though Secret knows who you are, Byttow says they're not telling -- unless, of course, law enforcement compels them to do so.

Or they get hacked.

Created by Byttow, formerly of Google and Square Wallet, and ex-Google+ product manager Chrys Bader-Wechseler, the app promises anonymity as you share secrets with your friends, friends of friends, and strangers. Because of this structure, Secret knows who you are.

Those three levels of identity are all that the app publicly shares in your Secret newsfeed, and they've fueled the app's fast rise. As we talked in the bustling Red Door Cafe on Second Street here, Byttow discussed Secret's popularity and challenges. Since it went public in February, more than 20 million people have signed on to share their deepest and darkest -- and perhaps, most frivolous -- thoughts.

Secret has caused controversy already. The app was banned in Brazil, where the constitution explicitly prohibits anonymous free speech, and a recent hack demonstrated how Secret's pseudonymity could be exploited to uncover the identity of a Secret poster. That hack was patched before it was made public, but nevertheless demonstrated that Secret's promise of privacy is not iron-clad.

Secret isn't promising to protect its users' identities from the law. "[I]f we're compelled to do so, especially to keep someone safe, we will absolutely turn that [information] over," Byttow said. "If the user had opted to unlink their post, and we can't obtain the information, we would turn over what we had. That's in our terms, our privacy policy, and it's standard."

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation I had with Byttow, a slow and thoughtful speaker, earlier this week.

Q: The launch of Secret seemed perfectly timed to a certain zeitgeist. What is it about the app that's connected people in the way they want?
Byttow: What's interesting about Secret is that it allows you to share among people that you know, and people that know you. That carries a lot of weight, but not in a way that you may fear retribution or backlash in the future.

In society, we're learning a lot about what you put on the Internet, and in general what's attached to your name... you can feel very judged by it. A lot of times, people fear sharing what they feel at the risk of ostracizing or alienating their friends. Secret aims to provide a safe place for people to have honest conversations. I believe it's really important that we have a place for freedom of expression.

That's the long-term view.

The short term, and why it caught on, is that it's so easy to connect to people you know. There's interesting content there -- that's either relevant to you or close to you or said by a friend -- waiting when you join. It's a really connected community, there's a dense social graph that gets created in Secret.

There's not too many places on the Internet that offer that kind of security.

What kind of reaction has there been to last week's news of the hack?
Byttow: Most was positive. The beauty of the Internet is that we can fix software very, very quickly. In this case, we had fixed the issue, and furthermore I think it was a relatively complex and nuanced issue as well. It does require an intrepid person to exploit that particular thing. Overall, it was generally positive.

Even from the early days, people were, I don't know what kind of word to use here, not waiting but anticipating that any service that gets popular becomes a target for this kind of stuff. This was an important thing, I think, to show we take this stuff extremely seriously.

How important to what Secret is and does is the fact that it's not fully anonymous?
Byttow: The word anonymous is relatively misunderstood in general. First of all, I believe that anonymous doesn't mean untraceable. If you're going to do something unlawful, or illegal, or something you don't want people to really, really know about, certainly you should think twice about publishing it on the Internet. But I think people...with Secret, when you know it could be someone, it's everyone, but when it could be anyone, it's no one.

The magic of Secret is that you are having conversations among potentially people in your life, people that you trust, and people that you love. And it kind of mimics what we do naturally, which is have conversations around the dinner table. Having that space to do that is very important in life, having that freedom to express yourself.

For example, if you're at dinner with a loved one or a co-worker or with someone who you change how you say certain things -- or we might say more things in private about how we really feel. What happens is that Secret can actually give people a place to share their private thoughts, share their feelings, and get feedback, but you do it online.

People on Facebook or on Twitter might be reluctant to endorse things that might associate them with a piece of content. Secret gives you that honest place.

You've spent a lot of time thinking about secrets, and the nature of secrets online. What's the secret origin of Secret?
Byttow: When I built this product, I only wanted to focus on the word. It wasn't that I set out to build an anonymous service, it was that I took away everything that I could, until only the word was left. I took away the name, took away the time stamp, everything else.

We started there, with the ability to send an anonymous message to someone. But that didn't feel right. If you get an anonymous message from someone randomly, it feels a bit jarring as the recipient.

So we changed the model and allowed you instead to put something out there, and we will handle connecting it to people who might know you. And add that little bit of context, because that little bit of context really, really matters and it means something. We added the friend, to show that this is someone you know, someone who's potentially in your life.

And then when you have anonymity, and you have people endorsing things because it resonates with them -- not because they're putting their name on it but because that's actually how they might feel or there's something there -- then it spreads to your friends. That was the distribution model, that was the spreading of ideas that I hoped for.

You'll see this thing where people will come on, and they're connected to a few friends, and one or two of their friends will like that thing, and then it gains in popularity and it grows and grows and grows. And you end up with these people that will literally publicly go on Twitter and be like, "This is my post and it has 2,000 likes."

My mom has one post with 4,000 likes now. They've never had that kind of engagement in their life. These are people with 100 followers on Twitter. So that idea that it creates a meritocracy of ideas is very, very unique, and I love the idea that it just starts with your own community.

I worked a long time ago on Google+, I was there at the very beginning, and the concept of circles was always interesting to me. But in general, we're so complex and there's so much context in our subconscious that we can't manage the deep complexity of relationships, especially digitally. You can't put people in groups and move them out. So instead of tying your posts together, why not with every post you create you can be whatever personality you want to be? You can change who you really are for each post. That kind of inverts the whole model.

What does Secret look like without Friends? Just Friends of Friends and Strangers, since the nature of the hack was to exploit those relationships.
Byttow: I think [Friends] is a really important aspect of Secret. We're committed to making that aspect of it work because it's so powerful. That's a product and a technical challenge. I don't have a good answer for that because it's not an option at this point.

Any secrets you wouldn't share on Secret?
Byttow: (Long pause.) Interesting question. I think there are things that are important to keep to ourselves. You have to go back and look at the intent as to why you want to share something online. I generally use Secret to share what I'm feeling that moment, or to, you know, understand myself more deeply.

What we're trying to do with Secret is create more honesty and empathy and ultimately awareness in the world -- certainly self-awareness.

What kinds of secrets should people not share on Secret?
Byttow: First of all, you have to define what a secret means. I put the general concept of a secret, or the things that can be shared, into three buckets:

One is gossip, which you need only a third party to share. Two people talking about something else. That's among all social networks, or life in general. There's private thoughts, the things that you don't feel you'll be judged for, but you don't really share. And then there's secrets, things you keep to yourself that you think you may be judged for. I think Secret can cover that spectrum.

The things that you shouldn't be sharing on Secret are things that are illegal, or anything you absolutely don't want anyone to find out. The Internet by definition is not untraceable. People need to be careful about what they put on the Internet.

If somebody posted something illegal on Secret, and if law enforcement came to you and said, "We need the record of who this is," what would be the outcome?
Byttow: It depends on the content itself, but certainly if we're compelled to do so, especially to keep someone safe, we will absolutely turn that over. If the user had opted to unlink their post, and we can't obtain the information, we would turn over what we had. That's in our terms, our privacy policy, and it's standard.

At the end of the day, we want to protect our users. That's why, when people do posts, we do take extra steps in the product to remind people and give people the reflective moment to consider what they're posting. Whether it's referring them to the guidelines of what Secret is about and what you should be doing. That actually goes a long way -- when people are confronted with a dialogue [box] that says, hey, are you sure you want to post that?

We don't allow posts that are defamatory in nature. We're seeing promising results for people simply deciding not to share something that's negative or defamatory.

Prevention is key. It's one thing to find something and take it down after the fact. The best thing is just to prevent it outright.

When you say prevent it outright, do you mean that when you see people create posts, but before they actually go through the act of posting them, they?...
Byttow: Edit it or cancel it outright.

We've also seen in the past people will post something and 10 seconds or an hour later go back and delete it.

Are there any secrets at Secret that you wouldn't mind sharing?
Byttow: There are no less than six to eight dogs running around the office at any time, and only 20 employees.

What's coming for Secret?
Byttow: We're finding ways for people to connect more deeply. When two people connect, it's hard for them to have a private conversation. And one thing we don't want to do is just throw a random direct-messaging service, where anyone can message anyone. It needs to feel deeper, where you've already made a connection with someone and it's safe. If you were going to have an anonymous, private chat with someone, you want it to feel safe.

So we're working on something like that.

We just launched polls, so you can ask yes or no questions. Response has been phenomenal. It launched in the last couple of days. It seems as if nobody can resist a good poll. More than 50 percent of content creators are creating polls. Content creators are 20 percent plus [of people on Secret.]

Why do you think people are such jerks?
Byttow: I don't. I think you have to look at the intent behind the intent. That's why we're not quick to assign and say that somebody's a bad actor. You have to question what is their intent. I may be dodging the question, but ostensibly not everything's what it seems.