The Genius of Whisper, the Massively Popular App You Haven't Heard Of

It's anonymous. It's ephemeral. It's PostSecret optimized like FarmVille.
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I have a secret to tell you: There is a mobile app you've probably never heard of that gets 2.5 billion page views a month, substantially more than all of CNN. It's called Whisper, and the youths just love it.

Here's how it works. Anyone can post an anonymous message to the service in the form of an image macro: text overlaid on a picture. When you open the app, you see six such images. Each one has a "secret" on it. You can respond to a message publicly or privately, choosing a public anonymous post or a private pseudonymous chat. Users don't have a public identity in the app. While they do have persistent handles, there's no way to contact them except *through* the messages they post. The app is PostSecret, optimized like FarmVille.

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Fascinatingly, when you open the app on the phone, you can post and see public messages, but any time you want to see an archive of your own activity, you have to enter a four-digit pin number. So even if your phone were to fall into the wrong hands (i.e. parents), the posts and messages would still be hidden from view.

For the past couple weeks, I've been playing with Whisper. It is not for me. In fact, I hate it. It's like being granted telepathy, but there's a catch: your superpower only works in middle school bathrooms. UGH. Every mating strategy a 14-year old has ever thought of is now anonymously displayed for one to thumb through. If you've ever worried that our technologies are changing kids, Whisper answers unequivocally: "Nope, just as annoying as ever."

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My first post (left), and the two replies it netted (Alexis Madrigal).

On the other hand, this app is fascinating. It's the social experience of the street ported to the web, without all the persistent, real-name trappings of other networks. The kinds of interactions it allows people to have are closer to what happens at a mall or county fair than anything else on the Internet: A person you know nothing about says something, you reply, and that can continue or end. That's it.

Liz Gannes at AllThingsD highlights the way Whisper creates a different network structure than Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook: "There's no such thing as a celebrity user or a Whisper star." Each image rises or falls on its own, except for "Featured" posts, which are chosen by Whisper staff. These set the schmaltzy tone for the app. These are the top six at this moment:

  • "I'm terrified to meet my dorm mate." [photo of a dorm room]
  • "My best friend has no idea that when I tell her I love her, I mean it a little differently than she thinks." [photo of two young women swinging themselves around]
  • "I've been faking a british accent ever since I got to college 3 years ago" [photo of a dorm room with a British flag hanging on the wall]
  • "I've finally met the person who sees me for who I really am" [which is a skeleton, apparently, as the image is a double exposure of a girl and an x-ray showing the skeletal structure]
  • "I get self conscious when my pet sees me naked" [picture of a creepy cat]
  • "I can't tell if I miss you or if I miss what I wanted you to be" [fuzzy, desaturated picture of a woman near water]

You get the idea. This isn't where you get your world news or conversation about David Foster Wallace or even Gilmore Girl-level dialogue. This is id.

But man, what I wouldn't have given for this app as an angsty teenager! I would just hold it up to my face and sigh into it. Then I would snap a picture of myself doing that and post it with the text, "My secret is I want to get away from this place with a girl who understands me." Then I'd wait.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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