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Secret aims to be SXSW’s big breakout app

AUSTIN—Secret is under intense pressure for a 39-day-old iOS app that hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream. Cofounder and CEO David Byttow took the stage at South by Southwest on Saturday to both defend his anonymous social app and announce new features that might catapult Secret beyond Silicon Valley.

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Secrets from SXSW are exactly what you would expect.

Festival-goers are known to love hyperlocal recommendations, geolocation tools, and friend-finding features, which is partly why Foursquare and Twitter were past SXSW breakout stars, so Secret took a page from their books: The app introduced a festival-specific SXSW secrets page for attendees to submit confessions. The limited time Web view is a silly throwaway feature, but could help Secret gain traction at the festival—specifically at the parties—and maybe beyond.

Secret launched two other new features in Austin that are more useful, and could change the app’s direction. Nearby finds secrets that were submitted near you, and Share allows you to tweet out a secret you like or share it on Facebook. Byttow said he noticed that people were already sharing secrets, but had to screenshot them. The new feature eliminates a few steps.

But if you can share secrets with the world that aren’t your own, doesn’t fly in the face of the app’s purpose?

“The best ideas should be able to spread out and should be able to last,” Byttow said. “Some of the best ideas are timeless and we should capture them.”

On bullies and trolls

Secret has taken a lot of heat for its anonymous, anything-goes nature. Silicon Valley insiders have used the app to spread rumors about start-up acquisitions and bad CEO behavior, some of which has been proved categorically false.

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Secret's update for iOS added features that make it more compelling for the masses.

The app hasn’t caught on with teenagers yet, but if it does, false tech industry gossip could give way to malicious bullying, the way it has on so many other anonymous services.

Byttow said bullying is a big concern for the fledgling company, but highlighted a key difference between Secret and its predecessors, PostSecret, Ask.fm, and Formspring: Secret begins with posts from your circle of friends instead of allowing anyone to see any post. The new Share feature could change the dynamics of the app, but Byttow isn’t worried—yet. The company employs two moderators to keep an eye out for inappropriate content, and Byttow said there haven’t been many, if any, instances of bullying.

“We’re still learning what to take seriously,” he said. “I think the answer is: We just don’t know yet. You have to look at everything in life with a critical eye. That’s also part of the fun.”

Secret rolled out an under-the-radar feature at SXSW in addition to Share and Nearby that could help keep malice to a minimum: When you use a person’s name in your submission, the app will display pop-up dialogue reiterating guidelines that prohibit the use of real names.

A future update will monitor submissions for references to suicide, and use similar pop-up dialogue to direct users to prevention resources and support services.

Most newborn apps are focused on making a big splash and growth-hacking their way to the top of the download charts. Byttow’s emphasis on long-term planning and the rollout of features that will make the app and its users better and more thoughtful shows a thoughtfulness that few other SXSW contenders can boast. Secret might just have a future bigger than the Bay.

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