To understand the initial appeal of Whisper, it helps to imagine the world through the eyes of someone under 25.
The app lets people post short, anonymous confessions in a public forum, and to the guarded, vulnerable and perhaps bored people within that age group, this medium of expression makes sense. It’s a public unburdening without the revealing consequences of social media.
But to believe these posts can make a company worth $100 million, app maker WhisperText’s reported valuation during the last funding round, or perhaps more, you need to think much, much bigger.
Whether or not the Santa Monica startup manages to meet those expectations might come down to the work of its newest employee: Neetzan Zimmerman.
When the company hired Zimmerman late last year from his perch at Gawker, it sent shockwaves through the online journalism world. Zimmerman, 32, was the master of viral stories at the cheeky blog network. Traffic data showed that his posts, which primarily repackaged content from around the Web, were responsible for more than half of Gawker’s total views. In other words, he got more eyeballs than the rest of Gawker’s writers combined.
Whisper has built up impressive traffic of its own since it was founded in 2012: Recent company figures show it gets more than 3 billion page views a day. But it has also been overshadowed somewhat by Snapchat Inc., its neighboring teencentric app in Venice.
Nabbing Zimmerman was Whisper’s loudest statement as a company to date, and a sly indication of its next move.
“He has such a tremendous eye for pop culture across multiple demographics,” said Whisper investor Jeremy Liew, who’s led seed investments in both Whisper and Snapchat through Menlo Park fund Lightspeed Ventures. “His judgment has power that’s going to be valuable beyond the wisdom of the crowd.”
So how does a New York media star find himself the editor-in-chief of an L.A. messaging app? More to the point: What’s the relationship between viral stories and anonymous confessions?
Zimmerman’s answer: There’s no difference.
“Whisper is about the things that people are doing when you’re not looking,” he explained. “That’s the bread and butter of viral content.”
Zimmerman was speaking from the back patio of the Santa Monica rental house that’s serving as Whisper’s headquarters. If he acted a bit dazed, it was hard to blame him. A day earlier he’d been in New York, barely escaping a snowstorm on his way out. Arriving at a ranch-style home with a cerulean pool a block away from the beach was like being transported to a different planet.
The Washington Post has called him a “viral genius,” but Zimmerman, who was raised on a kibbutz in Israel, is more engaged than heady. With a shaved scalp, gray-flecked beard and a gentle demeanor, he comes off as a laid-back professor at a liberal arts school. The kind who’s eager to expand on his favorite subject.
When asked about what uses Whisper could have beyond just a space for teen confessions, his eyes widen.
“There are so many!” he said, compulsively rubbing his glasses against his shirt.
To him, Whisper is part of a long line of microblogging platforms that began with Tumblr and is currently being dominated by Twitter and Reddit.
The key to these services, he said, is their unparalleled ability to survey interesting content from around the Web and bring it to people instantly. It’s a phenomenon he refined to perfection at Gawker, and it’s something traditional newspapers couldn’t care about less.
“You have these people entrenched in editorial boards way too long who believe that only what they publish matters,” Zimmerman said. “I saw that immediately as nonsense. Whatever is interesting to people is what matters.”
That topic might sound far afield from Whisper’s confessions, but it’s exactly what co-founder and Chief Executive Michael Heyward wants. For this service to attract more than just the early adopters, the company needed someone who takes this content seriously.
“From one of our first conversations I tried to convey how big I think Whisper should be,” Heyward said. “While we’ve gotten great early traction, we think this is a service that a large percentage of the world’s population is going to use.”
The 3 billion monthly views figure is both impressive and misleading: A page view is defined as looking at a single whisper, most of which take less than five seconds to read. That makes it tough to compare with more content-rich sites, such as Upworthy or Buzzfeed. Right now, the company does not have a revenue-generating model.
In general, Whisper’s content ranges from lonesome musings such as “Is It Possible to Miss Someone You Never Met?” to “Ugh, I hate LA Traffic.” There are many posts about infidelity, betrayal and, because this is the Internet, dinosaurs.
If you like a particular Whisper, you can press a heart button in the corner of a post. A whisper receiving a lot of hearts can be elevated to the apps’ “Most Popular” tab.
It’s easy to disregard Whisper’s trove of thought nuggets, but Zimmerman and Heyward said it has actual value. For one, teenage users – especially females – historically are trendsetters; they latched on to Tumblr and Twitter long before they became billion-dollar businesses.
In their eyes, this new front of anonymous posting could be next.
“We think anonymity is going to be really, really big in the next few years,” Heyward said. “We want to own anonymity.”
Neither Zimmerman nor Heyward would elaborate on what Whisper’s new content push will look like exactly.
Heyward said he’d be open to allowing integration with third-party apps. That strategy was essential to Twitter’s early success, as dozens of Twitter-based applications popped up to help make sense from its fire hose of content.
Zimmerman has thought about it more visually. For example, during the recent snowstorm in Atlanta that caused a major traffic jam, he searched the app for Atlanta-area Whispers. There was one that caught his eye: “I’m literally in the infamous traffic jam in Atlanta with my boss and he’s looking pretty tempting right now.”
Aggregating that and the many other whispers coming from the area would have made the ideal viral post, he said.
There is also the potential for some social good to come from the app’s format. Just as Twitter has become the de facto place for breaking news, they see Whisper as the idea outlet for whistleblowers.
Insiders can post about corporate wrongdoings without worry that their bosses will find out. Posters claiming to be American soldiers deployed overseas are using Whisper to reveal their true thoughts about service.
Of course, that anonymous format makes it just as easy for someone to fabricate a confession. Beyond checking where a Whisper was sent from, the company has no way to confirm its validity.
Heyward counters that because no name is attached to a post, there’s nothing really to gain from lying on Whisper.
“One of my favorite posts was, ‘The reason I love Whisper is because I don’t need friends or followers to be heard,’ ” Heyward said. “You get no social capital from posting something false.”
Even with future Whisper rollouts still some time away, Zimmerman is confident they’ll be huge. His reasoning gets to the very core of what he believes makes some piece of content go viral: earnest expression.
As an example he brings up “Star Wars Kid,” one of the most famous early viral videos. It showed a pasty, bespectacled teenager doing some clumsy lightsaber moves with a golf-ball retriever. The clip has 28 million views on YouTube, although its popularity actually predates the site.
The genius of the video and its central appeal is the absolute conviction the kid has, Zimmerman said. This is self-expression that comes from someone who's sure no one is watching.
And it’s the exact kind of earnestness that lies at the heart of Whisper.
“This is the most organic medium because it’s the most anonymous,” Zimmerman said. “You’re entering the judgment-free zone where anything can happen. That’s the recipe for virality.”
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