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Whisper and BuzzFeed are teaming up to turn secrets into stories

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The New York Times reported Sunday that Whisper and its editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmerman would be entering into a content-sharing partnership with viral giant BuzzFeed. The Times story, however, raised more questions than it answered—a fact that Zimmerman exasperatedly lamented when I spoke to him on the phone.

The Times reported that “15 BuzzFeed writers will search Whisper for possible articles,” a phrase that Twitter had some fun with. But Zimmerman says this isn’t exactly right. BuzzFeed is not establishing a Department of Whispers; there will not be 15 BuzzFeed writers exclusively trawling the secret-sharing app for stories.

“There is a lot of overlap between BuzzFeed’s audience and Whisper’s audience,” Zimmerman told me, but this is not an exclusive partnership. Whisper has a special project manager whose job it is to work with media outlets and Web publishers to find homes for stories that might not fit at BuzzFeed.

Zimmerman is interested in working with any writer or editor—regardless of the publication they work for—who finds something on Whisper that might be worth a story. Of course, the problem with that is that Whisper is effectively anonymous—a major part of Whisper’s appeal.

“Whisper is a great place for news to happen,” he says, “but you have to be very careful with anonymous sources.”

Still, there’s very little incentive to troll Whisper to begin with—there are no points, no karma, no favorites or retweets or likes. “Most people are being honest and forthright,” Zimmerman says. He describes Whisper to me as a place where users can share their experiences without fear of retribution, whether that means a gay teen in a tiny Midwestern town or an active-duty soldier in Afghanistan. Here's an early example about what type of story the partnership will create. 

Indeed, Whisper’s user base, Zimmerman says, includes 10,000 active service members. He and his team verify posts from users like these by reading through a user’s previous posts, assessing geo-tags, and reverse image-searching user-uploaded photos. He alluded to but did not elaborate on other means of verification as well.

“Ultimately, my goal is to make all these tools available to the public,” Zimmerman says. In the meantime, he is “more than happy” to lend his services to anyone who might inquire after them—whether they work for BuzzFeed, Gawker, or anywhere else. 

“Whisper is not Fort Knox,” Zimmerman says. “Users know full well anything they put on there is potentially very public.”

“People come to Whisper because they want to be found by other people.”

H/T New York Times | Image via schillergarcia/flickr | Remix by Jason Reed (CC BY 2.0)