Does Whisper’s Michael Heyward know how you really feel?
FORTUNE — People are sad. They’re stressed out. They feel shame and jealousy and a host of other things they largely conceal. But on Facebook, everyone’s daughter looks adorable. And the leisurely morning walk in the park, as documented on Instagram, is amazing. In other words, nothing is ever wrong.
That’s the central paradox to social media: Weighted by the burden of our social personas, we often feel compelled to express only feelings that reflect well on us. “The result is a basic lack of empathy in the world,” Michael Heyward says. At 26, the Los Angeles-based tech entrepreneur runs Whisper, a mobile application that lets people bare their souls without baring their names. He recently stopped by Fortune headquarters in New York, along with co-founder Brad Brooks. Brooks is a friend of his father, the cartoon king Andy Heyward. (Did you watch the animated television series Inspector Gadget? Yup, that was the senior Heyward.) They met when Heyward, having opted out of college, went to work at Brooks’ enterprise messaging startup, Tiger Text. (Brooks still spends most of his time running that company.)
With glassy eyes and clear-framed sunglasses draped L.A.-style from the neck of his button-down, Heyward leaned forward on the desk as he spelled out a vision for a mobile service that made people into the best versions of themselves by allowing them to say anything — mostly. His idea has caught on. According to Heyward, Whisper picks up 30 new posts every single second. Most of those posts come from the college-age set, and the average user spends more than 30 minutes a day in the app. That kind of quick traction has brought Whisper investor attention: as Recode’s Liz Gannes reported in March, the company reportedly raised $30 million in a round led by Sequoia Capital with China’s Tencent, among others, participating. The funding valued the two-and-a-half-year old mobile app at $200 million.
Even among the burgeoning slew of anonymity apps, Whisper is unique. For users, complete anonymity is the default. Users don’t have to make a profile, or connect with their friends. Unlike the competing app Secret, they can’t even tell if their friends are on the service. Once they’ve downloaded the app, they can post thoughts and feelings, by typing a message and choosing a photo as backdrop. They can like or comment on other posts, or send a direct message to the poster.
Through direct messages, posters often reveal themselves, which is the point. Heyward believes that more intimate connections can be made if people feel more control over when and how they reveal themselves. Sometimes, even, very intimate. “Lately, I’ve started to notice a lot of dating going on,” Heyward says.
But the trouble with anonymity is that it can also make people into their worst selves. As New York magazine chronicles this week, secrets can be damaging to reputations and destructive to communities. People don’t necessarily tell the truth on these apps, either, and it can be much more difficult to fact-check the veracity of a post. And of course, there’s porn. (Case in point: The message “Any hot JC chicks on here?” set against the backdrop of a buxom, scantily dressed woman.)
Heyward brushes off these concerns. “A community can evolve or devolve,” he says. “We can’t just take an ‘it’s a platform’ approach,” he explains, saying that it’s critical to set the tone for the community by highlighting posts that embody its values — and stripping away those that don’t. The company has invested heavily in content moderation, employing nearly 100 people in the Philippines to scan posts and remove those that name a private person, clearly spread misinformation, or are otherwise inappropriate. And those posts, Heyward says, are few and far between. He notes that “significantly less than one percent” of all posts are deleted.
As Whisper grows, Heyward believes the content will offer a more authentic sentiment analysis that could be valuable to businesses and the government over time. According to his thesis, people are more likely to express their real feelings. For example, there are close to 200,000 members of the military using the service, he estimates. “There are 80 times more mentions of post traumatic stress disorder at Fort Hood [the Texas military base that has seen two mass shootings in five years –ed.] than anywhere else in the country,” Heyward explains. Perhaps tools like Whisper could better help spot problems before they arise.
Heyward also has decent insight into employee morale at companies. “Every person who works at McDonald’s spits in the food,” he says. “I’ve seen tens of thousands of those posts.” His ambitious goal may be to bring empathy to the web — but surely there is also profit to be made in these types of insights over time.