“Conversationprism” by Brian Solis and JESS3 . Creative Commons

Some new social media apps focus on telling one’s inmost thoughts, pet peeves, and personal secrets —things one used to confide only to one’s trusted friends.

Whisper, for Android and iOS, permits users to share their thoughts and feelings on topics such as “Love & Romance,” “Faith,” and “Politics” in apparent anonymity. The theory is that discussions will be more truthful. An example: “I don’t think I could ever be faithful. Bachelor for life.” Well, true, he wouldn’t want that to get around, because it’s one thing to be a bachelor by choice and another thing to be a bachelor if no one will go out with him.

Then there’s Secret, also for Android and iOS—similar except that it shares your “anonymous” posts with your contacts from Facebook and mobile. OpusFidelis, a new media information blog, tells us, “However, none of your posts have an author, so you don’t know who sends what.”

No? An example secret: “The only time my father and I can really connect is when we’re both under the influence. Other than that, emotions just don’t come into our interactions. I wish we could do that without the booze.” And just think, none of his contacts can possibly guess who these people are or tell any of the others …

Our esteemed editor Michael Cook finds it a bit sad. It reminds him of the ancient tale of King Midas’ barber, worth recounting: King Midas of Phrygia, now part of Turkey (the same one as briefly and disastrously had the golden touch), made another big mistake later. He offered to judge a contest between two ancient gods of music. The loser god changed his ears to donkey ears. Thereafter, he hid his ears under helmets, scarves, and oversize hats.

Midas’ barber knew his secret of course, and Midas made him promise never to tell anyone. The barber tried to obey but keeping such a remarkable secret was beyond him. He resolved to dig a hole among some reeds high up a mountain, and he shouted the secret into the hole.

Unfortunately, as the reeds grew, whenever the wind blew, they were heard to whisper, “The king has asses’ ears.” Soon everyone knew.

This ancient cautionary fable is far more relevant to today than some might imagine. Online sharing and venting is not safely anonymous.

Consider the Truthy project, out of Indiana University, supported by the National Science Foundation and the James S. McDonnell Foundation:

Research Objectives

Truthy is a system to analyze and visualize the diffusion of information on Twitter. The Truthy system evaluates thousands of tweets an hour to identify new and emerging bursts of activity around memes of various flavors. The data and statistics provided by Truthy are designed to aid in the study of social epidemics: How do memes propagate through the Twittersphere? What causes a burst of popularity?

We also plan to use Truthy to detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution. While the vast majority of memes arise in a perfectly organic manner, driven by the complex mechanisms of life on the Web, some are engineered by the shady machinery of high-profile congressional campaigns. Truthy uses a sophisticated combination of text and data mining, social network analysis, and complex networks models. To train our algorithms, we leverage crowdsourcing: we rely on users like you to flag injections of forged grass-roots activity. Therefore, click on the Truthy button when you see a suspicious meme!

The more scholarly explanation of Truthy here is more neutral, but we hear even there: “Building on this foundation we have undertaken several analyses of political communication on Twitter, addressing political polarization and cross-ideological communication, the automated prediction of political affiliation from network and text data, and partisan asymmetries in online political engagement.”

Anyone who believes that this information would not be used for partisan political purposes should be aware that social scientists show a liberal bias to a “statistically impossible” lack of diversity, compared to the public at large.

And anyone who thinks that no one could find out who they are if they say something damaging, or deemed—by the constantly shifting standards of today—to be politically incorrect, may be unaware that, according to a recent article in the Washington Post,

Makers of surveillance systems are offering governments across the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone, whether they are blocks away or on another continent.

No reason to doubt it. It’s just too tempting.

And anyone who thinks the government would never share the information with people hostile to him needs to read about what happened to Brendan Eich, who was fired from Mozilla when the IRS leaked his donor information to gay marriage groups (he’d given money to opponents).

Knowing this, do we still feel like telling all to strangers online in supposed confidence? Well, it is no secret that the reeds of Phrygia are looking for plenty of new informants—unwitting informants on themselves.

Here’s the Truthy project at work:



Note: OpusFidelis explains other new social media apps as well, often alternatives to the biggies.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...