Facebook’s rebrand as “Meta,” is the big news in tech this week, as the company positions itself as more than just a social network for spreading misinformation. Nice timing, what with the slew of embarrassing stories to come out of internal memos leaked by a former employee. But long ago, before Trump’s MAGA movement and the pandemic, we had a different complaint about Facebook: It turned everyone into self-congratulatory dorks. Posting under your real name, to everyone you’d ever met, called for painting yourself in the best light. How boring.
And so, in 2012, the world eagerly welcomed a new app called Whisper, pitched by founder Michael Heyward as the “anti-Facebook.” The idea was to harvest anonymous confessions and gossip for content: Type your secret, pair it with an image and set it loose without worrying that the disclosure could come back to haunt you. The platform was immediately popular with Gen Z youths then fleeing Facebook in droves in hopes of minimizing their digital footprint. (Snapchat, with its temporary photos, held similar appeal.) By 2013, tech media was hyping Whisper as the next big thing, but in 2014, the flattering headlines were dropping. Despite its core assurance of privacy, the app collected enough data that the company could rat you out to law enforcement if push came to shove. Sexual predators were using it to lure potential victims. The network was flooded with spam, it had a bullying issue and people worried it would track their location. That last concern was somewhat overblown, but it pretty much ended the positive press cycle.
You might assume, then, that Whisper has since faded into a virtual ghost town, one more casualty of the internet’s relentless evolution. Not quite. It’s true that engagement has fallen off a cliff, from a reported 250 million monthly visitors in 2017 to just 30 million in 2020. But that remaining user base is more anarchic than ever. Lately, some who have tired of the usual Twitter discourse have returned to test the waters — and others are discovering the app for the first time. What they find there is like nothing else online, a bizarre collective subconsciousness.
To be clear, there’s still plenty of spam, misinformation and hate speech. The chat function combined with the ability to look for stuff from “nearby” opens the door to the Grindr-like hookups that many are openly soliciting. It’s amazing, though, how Whisper’s originally stated function — a release valve for the truths we fear to speak — has been subverted by our inclination to troll and shitpost. The brand dutifully curates the less chaotic material on their popular Instagram page, including comments on love, sex, money, mental health, family and personal improvement. But the coherence you see displayed there only highlights the absurdity of the app’s unfiltered feed. Such domestic epiphanies and revelations are very much the exception, not the norm. When you’re really on Whisper, you’re treated to the work of avant-garde meme creators who recognize the potential of an outdated format but don’t necessarily understand that long-time users are going to slide into their DMs with horny intent.
Why this minor renaissance? It would appear to me that Whisper has a throwback value, its aesthetic frozen in an awkward, transitional era of web communication. The default typeface, while not the Impact font so common back then, still codes these image macros as old rather than new, like something only a normie or Boomer would be sharing in 2021. The posts are also deliciously devoid of context — what’s there is what you get — which deepens the mystery and heightens the humor. Then you have the fun of trying to one-up the unhinged take you last saw there, so that we’re left to question what’s authentic sentiment and what’s a sort of conceptual design. Well past its heyday, Whisper is a low-visibility place to experiment with voice and perspective. Its relative anonymity has always been freeing, but now the freedom is artistic.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m in touch with something profound here. Maybe we can ascend from failed, exploitative, polarizing websites and find the wisdom in sheer nonsense. It’s undoubtedly more entertaining — I’m guessing it’s been a while since you had fun on Facebook. Although Whisper won’t give you the insight into the human condition it once promised, it does showcase our ability to salvage junk and surprise one another with its reinvention. In a sea of predictable content, this app defies all expectations. Honestly, I’m never leaving again.