Just 16 months after founding the anonymous message board app Secret, founder David Byttow seems to have realized what the rest of us have known all along: anonymity online turns people into total assholes. Guess some of us just need $35 million in funding to figure that out.
And so, in a brief post on Medium today, Byttow announced he would be shutting down the app, which struck a nerve with the Silicon Valley set when it launched early last year but has struggled to keep pace with fellow anonymity apps like Yik Yak in recent months. The shutdown means Secret will be returning money to investors, which Byttow believes is a more responsible move than attempting to pivot. In the post, Byttow writes that the decision has been the hardest of his life, and while he doesn’t address Secret’s bullying problem explicitly, he does say that what the app eventually became was not what he envisioned when he started it.
“I believe in honest, open communication and creative expression, and anonymity is a great device to achieve it,” Byttow wrote. “But it’s also the ultimate double-edged sword, which must be wielded with great respect and care.”
No Name, No Money
On one hand, you’ve got to give it to the guy. Secret is not the only app that’s had highly publicized problems with bullying and gossip. Whisper and Yik Yak are right there with it. But Byttow is the only one who’s deciding not to be complicit in it anymore by bowing out completely.
On the other hand, you have to wonder if the roles were reversed and Secret had the traction that Yik Yak has, as well as a solid revenue structure to back it up, whether Byttow would be making the same choice. Fast growth and $35 million can go a long way toward settling a worried conscience. That may be one reason Byttow waited until Secret was facing what seemed like an irreversible downturn to admit that anonymity apps actually can be as dangerous as everyone says they are.
Whatever the reason, the decision to shutter Secret seems more admirable than not. The app grew faster than the team’s ability to contain what was happening on it. And while it can be tempting not to mess with success when you’re riding a wave, allowing that kind of behavior to go on unchecked is plain irresponsible. By deciding to shut down, Byttow is sending a strong message to startups that the Zuckerbergian mantra of “move fast and break things” isn’t always justifiable when it means people getting hurt in the process.