The Short Second Life of Post Secret; or How Griefers, Sexters, and Haters Ruined an App in Only Four Months

Today, the Post Secret app officially died. How things spiraled down so quickly is a highly cautionary tale for anyone who fully trusts anonymity — and expects it not to become a tragedy of the commons. As Frank Warren, the founder of Post Secret, states on the website, this was a difficult decision made, but one made necessary due to problems with some of the anonymous secret postings:

Like the PostSecret Blog, the App was designed so each secret was absolutely anonymous. Unfortunately, that absolute anonymity made it very challenging to permanently remove determined users with malicious intent.

99% of the secrets created were in the spirit of PostSecret. Unfortunately, the scale of secrets was so large that even 1% of bad content was overwhelming for our dedicated team of volunteer moderators who worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week removing content that was not just pornographic but also gruesome and at times threatening.

For many users of this app, this is a great loss — not just of a fun way to pass the time, but also the app served as a supportive community for those who were suffering through great loss and difficult times (such as having children with cancer, multiple miscarriages, soldiers with PTSD). And now that community is erased through the removal of the iPhone/iDevice app. Forever. (At least not in a recoverable way).

As cNet reports, users are saddened by the loss of community through the end of the PostSecret app:

“I will always wonder about the beautiful woman fighting cancer that always had the kindest words to say in response to people’s secrets. I will wonder about beard guy and assume he’s still brightening people’s days…Thank you for the opportunity to take a look into the world Frank, and help me realize that I am blessed and privileged in a world where many people are not. It gave me a new sense of compassion for others.”

The app was released in September to much fanfare — including a glowing article in Wired. And according to ReadWriteWeb, the app “taught beautiful lessons about privacy on the web” (and is where you should go to read about what the user experience was like, if you haven’t used the app.) The app rocketed to the top of the App Store, becoming the #1 downloaded app within 24 hours.

And the PostSecret app was a highly entertaining app, easy to use, with secrets ranging from the tragic, to the hilarious, to the simply banal. My own user experience likely followed those of other early adopters — only positives, then surprise by the negatives, then annoyance with those who were wrecking the app for others, to now, acceptance of the shutdown. And the negatives started slow — with anonymous pleas for sexting, complete with Anthony Weiners, moving on to a flood of these posts — and also occasional direct personal attacks. And then things got much worse around Christmas, with the amount of what I would describe as legally obscene pictures posted — no message — so the entire point was to disturb the viewer.

Of course, some of the secrets posted were racist, sexist, or demeaning to others in some ways. But as long as those were “secrets”, they were still within the spirit of PostSecret. But the direction that many of the postings that shut down the app showed the worst side of people generally and specifically on the internet.

The Post Secret app was launched after years of the PostSecret brand as a website, books, and speaking tours. It failed not because people did not want it to succeed — but because a tiny percentage were interested in their own needs, upsetting others, or something else negative towards communities, everyone lost.

I doubt that future app developers will be so amenable to anonymous user experiences as PostSecret was, and the next time you wonder why we can’t have nice things (read: more privacy) remember the griefers, sexters, and haters that ruined the PostSecret app for all.


Grant Me the Serenity to Walk in the Footsteps of Giants: Authorship Disputes with Christian Prayers

For those looking for information about a movie that involves a certain Chinese symbol that is derivative of Cowboy Bebop — sorry! But there is another interesting Serenity story — the disputed authorship of the well-known Serenity prayer. And lest one Christian prayer dispute be not enough, walk further through this post to Footsteps.

You have likely heard — or read the Serenity prayer, in an AA meeting, on a poster, or in a self-help book.

But now Fred Shapiro, a law librarian at Yale and author of the Yale Book of Quotations, has called into question the common knowledge about the authorship of the prayer in an article in the Yale Alumni Magazine. (News coverage by Laurie Goodstein in both the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune)

He says that while Reinhold Niebuhr is the acknowledged author, searching through historical documents has led to two possibilities:

The extensive pre-1943 documentation I have found, none of which refers to Reinhold Niebuhr, is subject to two interpretations. One is that Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer in the early or mid-1930s, it quickly disseminated through religious and other circles with the author’s identification largely forgotten, and the database occurrences are traces of that dissemination….

I think the second interpretation is more likely: that the prayer was indeed “spooking around for years” and that Niebuhr unconsciously adapted the Serenity Prayer in the early 1940s from already-circulating formulations of unknown origin.

In response, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, and author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War states

To decide on a text’s authorship, one needs to understand its meaning and its historical context, and I am not sure Mr. Shapiro does. To me, his new discoveries simply suggest that in the years before World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr’s voice reached many more American churches and organizations than we previously realized …

Mr. Shapiro’s working premise for his research on the Serenity Prayer seems to be that we must find out just who first spoke or wrote it in the public record, because that person is more likely to be — or to be near — its true author. But, as I’ve said to him before, this is not necessarily the right way to go about looking for prayer authors. Prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper. Pastors and congregants use them in worship, recall and even misremember them, think about them for years before they are printed. That is why common, i.e., shared, use is one criterion for establishing a text, no matter who may have originated it — though that still matters.

The authorship debate about the Serenity prayer has remained reasonably friendly by remaining academic, but the uncertain authorship of Footsteps has included many claimants to original authorship.

In an article in Poetry Foundation Magazine, Rachel Aviv discusses many of the various authorship claims to Footsteps, the well-known prayer poem that has been widely reprinted. The claims of several people who claim to be the lone author contrast with “popular knowledge” that the author is anonymous.

Aviv states

Carl Jung argues that it’s impossible to know for certain which ideas are one’s own. “Our unconsciousness . . . swarms with strange intruders,” he writes. He accuses Nietzsche of unwittingly copying another’s work, and urges all writers to sift through their memories and locate the origin of every idea before putting it to paper: “Ask each thought: Do I know you, or are you new?”

In the realm of Christian poetry, the process of distinguishing which ideas are original is significantly harder—the same body of collective epiphanies has been passed down for years. When artists open themselves up to the inspiration of the Lord, it’s not surprising that sometimes they produce sentences that sound as if they’ve been uttered before.

Focusing on singular authorship in these circumstances seems wrong — whether the other contributor is direct divine inspiration or indirect divine inspiration through the words of others. Perhaps these works did indeed have only one author — in the sense of expressing those ideas using those words. However, both have entered the public cultural experience without such attribution.

Once again, the difficulty in proving authorship of common cultural items is a reason to limit copyright terms. Whether it is these prayers or Happy Birthday to You, when shared cultural experiences become common, we treat them as if they already are in the public domain.