DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. Let's take a few minutes to think about social networking and identity. Do you remember when on the Internet, anonymity was the norm? Well, Facebook changed all that by forcing users to use their real names.
Now, with our reputations on the line, we often think long and hard about what to post or not post online.
NPR's Kevin Leahy tells us about a new market for social apps that let you share, like and chat without ever revealing who you are.
KEVIN LEAHY, BYLINE: To understand the allure of these apps, you've got to ask what turns young people off about mainstream social networks.
DEBORAH AKINUOLIE: If you put something on Facebook, you could easily be judged.
LEAHY: If you want to get something off your chest or just complain, says Deborah Akinkuolie, Facebook isn't the place. The 18-year-old prefers Whisper - an app where you can post anonymously.
AKINUOLIE: It makes you feel a little bit more comfortable, more secure in yourself. And even if you are being judged for it, but judging the post, not you.
LEAHY: Akinkuolie sees Whisper as a safer, more empathetic place. Whereas, on Facebook and Instagram...
MICHAEL HEYWARD: People are constantly showing off the best versions of themselves, right.
LEAHY: Michael Heyward co-founded Whisper.
HEYWARD: And it can sometimes make you feel isolated and a little more alone because you're comparing your kind of behind the scenes to everyone else's highlight reel.
LEAHY: But when you're anonymous, creating that highlight reel is kind of pointless - and this helps make for what Heyward says is a more honest experience.
This is the new model for a lot of app developers today. Ask.fm, Spraffl, Anomo, these new networks bring together total strangers who don't have to reveal who they are unless they really want to.
So what kinds of secrets do people share? I logged into Whisper and scrolled through the most popular entries. They look kind of like postcards. They have a couple lines of text laid over a corresponding image.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When I watch the Olympics I only root for the hot people.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't get why so many guys like blondes. I don't find them that attractive.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Honestly, the only reason I'm still with my girlfriend is because her dad owns an electronics store and I get the friends and family discount.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I want Chick-fil-A.
LEAHY: OK, these thoughts and emotions posts range from light-hearted and silly, to angsty(ph) to somber.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I like living at school more than at home and I hate visiting my parents.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I wish my parents understood that I truly love my boyfriend and that separating us isn't going to change that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Be nice to door to door salesman, we hate our job more than you do. Some of us are just trying to provide for our families.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I used to be pulled over every day before school by a police officer. The day I graduated, he came and asked me out. I got him fired and rejected him.
LEAHY: So, anonymity is what allows Whisper users feel safe expressing these thoughts. It's like a confessional or like graffiti on a bathroom wall, because anonymity also can also play to our worst impulses.
(SOUNDBITE OF POST SECRET APP TRAILER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Anonymously sharing your own secrets, the simple photo her sentence.
LEAHY: This is a trailer for a very similar app called Post Secret, which launched in 2011. The app raced to the very top of the charts, but within four months, Post Secret's founder killed off his own app.
LEAHY: Frank Warren told NPR his moderators couldn't keep up with all the violent, threatening and sexually explicit content, and Warren believes Whisper is bound to run into the same issues.
But Michael Heyward, Whisper's 26-year-old CEO, says the company has safeguards in place, including more than 100 full-time moderators and technical tools to filter out proper names and explicit images.
Investors are betting that Whisper can pull off this balancing act. The company's raised $24 million in venture capital, hoping to become the big name in anonymous social networking.
Kevin Leahy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.