SAN FRANCISCO -- The Secret is out.
The anonymous social networking app that in less than four months has become the Silicon Valley sounding board for personal romances and rivalries, and one of the few unfiltered windows onto the underbelly of the tech world, launched worldwide Wednesday.
Secret, a smartphone app that allows users to post messages anonymously to friends on their social networks, and to their friends' friends, is available everywhere except the few countries where it's banned. It had previously been only in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
The San Francisco-based company also on Wednesday released an Android version of the app, which until now had been available only for Apple iOS devices. The Android version will offer users two streams of anonymous messages: one that comes only from friends and friends of friends, which is the crux of the iOS app; and a second stream only to show messages from users who are nearby, in the same neighborhood or city, but aren't in your network. Secret's founders say the new "explore" stream, not yet available for iOS, will give users insights into news, gossip or social quirks that are trending around them.
With the global launch, Secret is trying to distance itself from its reputation as a Silicon Valley gossip machine used only by engineers to rant about a manager at Facebook or speculate about the latest romance at Google. It hopes to show that the international smartphone-using community is eager to network in cybersphere while keeping their identities concealed.
"You see people in London, England, and Australia and New Zealand using the product when we go to bed," co-founder David Byttow said in an interview with this newspaper. "And it's funny because they post a lot of the same things that we see here in the U.S. People come on the platform and talk about their love life or their aspirations or things they are thinking and feeling."
But with Secret now open for much of the world to divulge its deepest and darkest thoughts, experts say the startup faces a greater risk that it will become the go-to platform to expose trade secrets or delicate business information -- think the recipe for Coke or the specs of Apple's next invention.
"Someone may share on Secret anonymously a company's secret sauce," said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "That would be misappropriation of a trade secret and (Secret) could be subpoenaed."
Since Byttow and co-founder Chrys Bader, both ex-Google engineers, launched the app at the end of January, Secret has enjoyed growth that's dizzying even by Silicon Valley standards. Secret last month moved from Google Ventures' offices in San Francisco into new headquarters in the city's SoMa neighborhood, where it has grown from three to 14 employees. It has raised $10 million from investors including actor Ashton Kutcher, famed quarterback Joe Montana and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, which values the startup at about $40 million.
The founders say Secret's success is the result of widespread need among social network users to feel like they can speak freely online without getting blowback from friends, co-workers and bosses. As more people have flocked to Twitter and Facebook to conduct business and be social, it's become harder to be authentic and honest about what they post.
"There's been a very subtle pain point that's been building for a long time," Bader said at a recent startup gathering in Redwood City. "If you look back at your Facebook wall from 2007 and 2006, you won't believe the stuff that you wrote. It's like private messages."
But saying whatever one wants to a digital audience can also wreak havoc, especially in tight-lipped and hypercompetitive Silicon Valley, where corporate secrecy can be essential to the bottom line. Recently, one user who claimed to be a former Apple employee posted a message alleging that Apple was planning to release earbuds that could measure heart rate and blood pressure. The author admitted it was made up, but not before the message caused some consternation at Apple and made news headlines.
Other messages have proved to be true: One user revealed that Google Plus executive Vic Gundotra was leaving his post days before the company announced it.
Hall says it's only a matter of time before a Secret user reveals a corporate secret that will catch the attention of federal agents who will go looking for the user's identity. Secret has a technical process to unlink comments from a user's account to keep them anonymous, but Hall says cyber experts still have ways to dig up a user's identity.
Secret says it hasn't been subpoenaed yet, but should another rumor about Apple or Google appear on the app, Secret will leave it be.
Said Byttow: "If it's about a corporate entity, and a newsworthy entity, then we don't touch it."
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.