Secrets and lies: Whisper and the return of the anonymous app

The app is a reaction to the over-embellished existences we find on social networks, making it often moody and melancholy -- and real in the most unsettling of ways.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
8 min read
Whisper CEO Michael Heyward at the company's temporary headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. Platform 9 3/4 alludes to Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

If it's true that you are who you are when no one is looking, then Whisper, the anonymous app where college-aged kids hang out and bond over their candid confessions, is arguably the most authentic social network of them all.

Founded in 2012, the not even 2-year-old smartphone application returns us to the roots of the Web when anonymity, not identity, was the norm. In many ways, Whisper is a reaction to the over-embellished existences we find on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, making it often moody and melancholy -- and real in the most unsettling of ways.

Whisper works like this: type a message, any message, and the app will attempt to find an image that matches the meaning. The end result is an image with text overlaid, visually similar to Internet memes. Essentially, Whisper is the digital reincarnation of PostSecret, the celebrated art project in which people mail their confessions on the back of postcards.

whisper app
Screenshot/Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

On Whisper, your confession is posted to a public feed where strangers can see it, like it, and post a reply. Or, they can strike up a conversation with you via private message. The app's popular feed exposes some of the top secrets on the service, a nearby stream highlights whispers posted around you, and a featured feed offers up content curated by the app's content moderators.

Whisper's premise is that because your posts aren't linked to your identity, you can actually get real with what's going on in your life, like say revealing that you didn't have sex on your honeymoon, you just found out your boyfriend was going to jail, you eat your feelings, you're attracted to a felon, or you're having dark thoughts.

Then, when you get real, when you bare it all to strangers, you're no longer alone.

Life without filters
"People are very voyeuristic," said Karen North, who holds a psychology doctorate and is a professor at the University of Southern California, where she runs the university's social media masters program. "They like to look inside at the internal, personal side of people's lives."

Whisper, she said, also caters to the very human desire to speak our innermost thoughts, the things we can't even tell our best friend. It can offer the same pleasurable sensation as gossiping with your hairstylist or spilling your guts to the stranger sitting next to you on a plane.

But Whisper is not really about spreading secrets, CEO Michael Heyward insists. Rather, it's a place where our masks come off. Social media, you see, is the purveyor of our half-truths and outright lies. As is the case with reality television, the typical social network helps people push forward a highly edited version of the truth designed to make them look better -- or worse -- than they really are. Whisper, then, is intended to be a place where we can be ourselves, where authenticity thrives.

Hot or not?
"I don't want to live in a world where you feel like you can't be yourself," Heyward told me.

whisper suicide
Screenshot/Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

He's clearly not alone. A growing number of young people are gravitating away from Facebook and toward apps that provide them more freedom of expression. Snapchat with its disappearing picture and video messages -- aka snaps -- reigns supreme in this category. The application, though it doesn't disclose user numbers, is responsible for 400 million snaps per day. Its ubiquity in middle schools and high schools has made the app one that parents are desperate to understand.

"In the past six months, as I'm engaging with parents at workshops, they are much more aware of Snapchat than they were this time last year," Adam McLane told CNET. McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, a ministry group that coaches people who work with teenagers. "Parents are aware of what [Snapchat] is, how it works, and possible dangers for their kids."

Whisper's relevance is harder to pin down. The app, at least according to McLane, hasn't catapulted itself onto parents' must-watch list just yet, which means it's either a passing fad or flying dangerously under the radar.

"On a psychological side, you have to look at this and worry a little bit. What happens when the experiment gets out of control?" North said. "When you encourage people to talk about things that are internal and complicated, and ... people get accolades for doing that. It's a bit of a Pandora's box."

She has a point. Scan the Whisper feed and you'll find disturbing confessions about drugs, sex, violence -- even suicide. For every innocuous post about using too many "LOLs" in text messages, there's a troubling one about wanting to disappear. Perhaps what we're dealing with, then, is really just a new type of forum where young people cry out for attention. After all, the site is overrun by college kids trying to figure out their place in the world. Whisper says its audience, which has an undisclosed number of users in the "millions," is comprised mostly of individuals 18 to 24 years old, and 70 percent of users are female.

Whether Whisper traffics in secrets or lies may be irrelevant from a business perspective. There are more than 80 times the number of Whispers than there are Wikipedia articles, Heyward said. During peak hours, Whisper handles more than 20 posts per second. Every month, it amasses more than 3 billion page views. The average user also purportedly opens the mobile app more than 10 times per day.

whisper office
The company's favorite confessions act as art and inspiration. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

The company, which operates its business out of a multimillion-dollar house in a posh beachside neighborhood, has received enough traction to warrant the attention of top venture capitalists, including Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners, which collectively have bet $24 million on its success.

"I put my money where my mouth is," Lightspeed partner Jeremy Liew said of his faith in Whisper and Heyward. Liew was also the first outside investor in Snapchat.

Mobile, he said, is a weird kind of place. It's where people go to kill time. When in line for the bathroom or bored at school, people pull out their phones and open one of the apps on their home screen. "The key to winning is getting on home screen," Liew said. "When you're a home screen app, you're going to win."

Liew says he believes that Whisper already has become a home screen app for many youngsters. The app has longevity, he says, because its content is the most compelling around, and because it allows people to say the things that aren't usually said. Plus, he argues, it's a mostly empathetic and sympathetic zone, a safe house for personal revelations.

That's debatable. You don't need to look too hard to find perverts lurking behind the curtain of Whisper's anonymity, and there's definitely a segment of the user base soliciting hookups with their posts or through the private messaging feature.

The company, according to Heyward, pays close attention to all posts and deletes those that don't belong. Whisper employs moderators and will boot those who abuse the anonymity privilege to hurt others. "We will always protect free speech, but this not a place to break the law," he said.

Whisper also maintains a nonprofit foundation called Your Voice, where it directs people who post about causing harm with specific intent.

Finding the white space
But parents, once they do learn of Whisper, may find it difficult to entrust the well-being of their kids to Heyward, who is, at 26 years of age, still very much a kid. It doesn't help that he barely looks a day over 21.

In the flesh, Heyward is as regular, unassuming, and likable as they come. He does possess, however, the singular type of self-assuredness you'd expect from a prep-school graduate determined to prove he no longer needs daddy's help -- or money.

Like Los Angeles' hottest CEO Evan Spiegel, Heyward attended the elite Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica. He too benefited immensely from the prestige and privilege that comes with having a successful dad. After graduation, Heyward skipped college and went straight into the professional world, working for his CEO father, Andy Heyward, in the brand management division at DIC (pronounced "deek") Entertainment. DIC was the television production company behind kid classics like "Inspector Gadget" and "Strawberry Shortcake." The company merged with Cookie Jar Entertainment in 2008.

At DIC, Heyward worked alongside friend and neighbor Brad Brooks, DIC's COO at the time. In February 2010, Brooks launched a startup called TigerText, which offered a way to send text messages that disappeared after an allotted amount of time -- essentially Snapchat for SMS (but before Snapchat was born) or WhatsApp with a time limit.

A year later, Heyward followed his friend to TigerText, which has since switched directions to focus on secure messaging for the enterprise. But while at TigerText, Heyward came up with the idea for Whisper. With Brooks' help, he launched the first version of Whisper in May of 2012.

whisper secret confession
Screenshot/Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

"I felt like there was this big white space on the Web, and the white space became bigger and bigger as a result of other networks becoming substantially larger," he said. "I felt this was a service that needed to exist."

The problem, as Heyward describes it, is that we're all sharing and consuming highlight reels, exposing people to only the best of the best of our lives and getting an unblemished view of our friends' existences. That makes us merely followers, just lemmings, he said, with a skewed perception on what's really going on behind the scenes.

"The more you consume the highlight reel, the more isolated you become," Heyward said. "In our society, everything needs to be swept under the rug."

Whisper, however, didn't immediately resonate with people. It launched with a hush befitting its moniker. Day one, the application was installed by around 20 people, 18 of whom were Heyward's personal friends or family members, he said. By the fall of 2012, however, the app started to get some major traction, thanks in no small part to the attention it was receiving from colleges and coverage in campus newspapers. Pennsylvania State University, Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Ohio University were some of the earliest universities to embrace the app, Heyward said.

Trouble on the home front
Whether it's because of jealousy, rivalry, or concerns over content, the startup isn't exactly getting positive reviews from its peers closer to home in Los Angeles, a few of whom spoke skeptically to me about the app and its CEO on the condition of anonymity.

Whisper's Santa Monica neighbors aren't enthralled with the 30-person company's house-based office either. One such neighbor said residents in the area are going crazy. "They're renting a house, pretending to live there, but they're running a business instead," the neighbor said.

The Whisper basketball court at the young company's "office" in Santa Monica. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

A move to a real office is supposedly in the works, but renting a house and pissing off the neighbors is almost the perfect metaphor for the young company. Whisper is by no means a sure thing in social media and the nature of the app makes many people uncomfortable. There's also the question of whether management is equipped to deal with "what if" scenarios that arise when young people are given a forum to expose their vulnerabilities.

"I worry that [Whisper users] don't have the internal resources to handle the consequences of their own disclosures," North said.

But less of a concern for the psychology expert, though, is whether Whisper will stick around. "If I had to bet, I'd bet that [Whisper] is going to run its course over some number of months and people will move on to the next [thing]."

So, if North is right, our desire to share our secrets will always be around, but Whisper won't be.