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Why Did Secret Fail?

05/14/2015 01:39 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

Why did Secret fail?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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Answer by Steven Walling, used to use Secret

I think there are three key factors.

1. Lack of utility/product-market fit

Secret gained its reputation mostly as a place for Silicon Valley gossip-mongering (The New York Times story). This kind of thing can be a passing entertainment, but it failed to transition into something users could form a daily habit around over months and years.

Regardless of whether you think it was moral or not, it doesn't seem to have a lot of value to most people or room to grow, unless you manage to focus on a high value segment like Glassdoor reviews. The idea of anonymous sharing in a locale exposing more raw insight was an interesting one, but it never grew beyond the most banal use cases.

Products like Ask.fm, Whisper, and Yik Yak suffer from the same problem, but so far as I can tell, have stuck around in part because they managed to work themselves into the social networks of kids and young adults, a much broader market than the Silicon Valley bubble. Whether these products will succeed as these kids mature remains to be seen.

2. You can't have a sustainable community without ground rules and someone who is willing to enforce those rules.

Many smart people believe that the anonymous nature of Secret was fundamentally flawed and incapable of lasting growth. "Anonymity breeds meanness", says Sam Altman. I don't hold with this at all. Sue Gardner put it really well in her post "Why I'm in favor of online anonymity"

People talked on Secret about bad sex, imposter syndrome, depression and ADD, their ageing parents, embarrassments at work. You may remember the engineer who posted that he felt like a loser because he, seemingly alone in Silicon Valley, was barely scraping by financially. It was vulnerable and raw and awesome.

The truth is that several extremely successful communities include a core principle of anonymity and/or widespread pseudonymity: Twitter, 4Chan, Wikipedia, reddit, and others all rest heavily on contributors who don't typically go by their real names or offline identities. On English Wikipedia alone, there are about a million anonymous edits every month. Even on Quora, where we enforce a Real Names Policy for your account, we allow for selective anonymity, when you need to ask or answer a sensitive question.

What all of these communities do share is a set of ground rules that are clearly enforced. Yes, even 4Chan has always had ground rules and moderation (Source: Absolutely everything you need to know to understand 4chan, the Internet's own bogeyman). The problem is not that people who are anonymous/pseudonymous are incapable of creating useful, interesting work. It's that Secret failed to define what its community did and did not allow clearly, and then enforce those principles consistently.

Secret tried to create community guidelines and encourage users to report posts, but it was too late. By the time they'd created reporting, it had already been cemented in the minds of most users that the appeal of the product was a no-holds-barred environment.

3. You have to instill confidence in a long term vision for the community and the company.

Both your users and your employees need to sincerely believe that you're going to be around longer than 16 months, if you actually want to make it past that point. Don't do things that implicitly signal the opposite, even if you say otherwise.

The New York Times elaborated on this, quoting anonymous sources close to the company:

But the news had broken that David Byttow and Chrys Bader, the founders of Secret, had sold part of their stake in the company for $6 million and that Mr. Byttow later bought a Ferrari. The founders did not initially tell the employees about the sale; instead, some of them found out on Secret.

Although Mr. Byttow and Mr. Bader reassured workers at the meeting that they were dedicated to the company, it was a turning point, said people close to Secret, who spoke on condition of anonymity. It shook the confidence of some workers, they said: If the founders had taken money off the table, it could mean they were protecting themselves against Secret's failing.

So ironically, Secret's own rumor mill likely contributed to lack of employee retention and its ultimate failure.

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