Andrew Ritchie Stuff


Secret: Do we need another way to be selfish on the internet?

17 Feb 2014

As soon as the download completed and I opened Secret for the first time to read posts I was filled with anxiety. I knew something was off. Secret allows users to share short anonymous messages with their social circle. If a secret message becomes popular in one social circle it propagates to tangential social circles, the extent of the propagation furthered by the popularity of the message. The subtitle of the app is "Speak Freely" and the constraint that it unburdens us from is the obligation to be considerate to others when we choose to express ourselves to others (the thought of how people respond to my comments is too troublesome, I want to say weighty things without any accountability).

Right now Secret is the rage of Silicon Valley, Sam Altman (who Paul Graham included in his five favorite founders list among Steve Jobs & Sergey Brin, and if you're unfamiliar with Paul Graham he founded "the most prestigious program for budding digital entrepreneurs") recently noted "I, like everyone else in Silicon Valley, downloaded Secret last week." Altman speaks out against secret as a gossip channel where individuals become victim to vicious anonymous personal attacks and states a belief that "[a]nonymity breeds meanness." Though the problem is far worse than that. Our existing social media channels, the largest being Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have evolved into mediums of personal PR where we were share material that we believe will enhance our social capital. Typically that amounts to vacation photos and our most clever jokes.

The worst shares on Secret take the next step in that direction, they are so self aggrandizing that they would be social poison on our existing mediums of self aggrandizement. And at least in my Secret circle, where I see posts about Bitcoin fortunes, favorable term sheets and startup revenues, the grandiloquence seems to outpace vulnerable confessions by about 4-1.

Which brings me to a bigger point. In Silicon Valley, companies boast about solving "hard problems." These tend to be technical problems which strikes me as odd, even as someone who has long had a technical affinity. Technical problems, particularly technical problems in business, tend to be based around technical constraints. Above all else, they tend to have a clear answer e.g. based on user research this search query needs to take less than 50ms or the delay costs us pageviews. To me, problems with such clear cut answers are not hard problems. To me hard problems are problems like "how do we pass legislation in the US that addresses fiscal crises in a polarized congress" or "how do we end civil war in Somalia?" Silicon Valley takes the easy road and says as long as we're making technical progress (which by the way has a law saying it's inevitable) we're solving hard problems.

And this is how we arrive at a point where the sector of society that prides itself on solving hard problems is obsessed with innovations that allow us to indulge in our most selfish impulses while remaining detached from our responsibility to the world at large. I once had the good fortune to contract with a startup non-profit that was actually working on a hard problem. Building Markets works to grow the economies in conflict zones, countries like Afghanistan, Haiti & Liberia where just helping a small business grow has an exponential effect on human lives. Building Markets could use a handful of talented developers to "solve hard problems" and "have an impact on people's lives" but they usually fight to attain government grants and still lack the kind of staff a venture backed startup takes for granted. Meanwhile Silicon Valley continues to provide us tools to get us expensive goods faster, or express our dissatisfaction with life in affluent communities in the United States.

There are countless hard human problems to be solved. I look forward to the day when our talented technologists embrace them.