Freedom of expression is one of the countless wonders of the Internet and has an important part to play in the contemporary political and social discourse. However, the prevalence of real profiles on the majority of social platforms has led many to believe that there would only be a truly and open dialogue if people can protect their identity and talk anonymously.
While anonymous spaces have always existed within the digital space (such as chat rooms in the early 2000s), for the past couple of years we’ve experienced a rise in anonymity apps. Aiming to eliminate censorship and foster empathy through dialogues that feel human and genuine, anonymity supporters see the Internet as a means of escape, a space where people can experiment with their identity and have truly open and honest conversations. Sceptics, however, argue that removing accountability facilitates cyber-bulling—an issue at the forefront of the social-media debate.
Contrary to the original purpose of these platforms, the rise of anonymity apps has exposed a darker, more contentious facet of human nature, raising critical questions regarding the future of this space.
Secret is one of the first such apps to make a big splash. It was launched in 2014 as a social-networking app with the aim of promoting people to ‘speak freely’– a space to connect, confess and share ‘intimate secrets’ with friends and friends of friends without being judged. However, the app shut down a few months ago after the platform became a breeding ground of abusive posts—a troll’s paradise. “Secret does not represent the vision I had when starting the company,” said one of the founders on the closing announcement.
Another anonymity app, Yik Yak, which uses geofence features to allow students to connect with people on and near their campus, continues to face strong criticism (the app is currently banned in many elementary and high schools throughout the US). But despite the accusations and petitions to shut down the app in response to multiple cases of cyber-bullying (one 17-year old girl attempted to commit suicide after multiple ‘yaks’ making fun of her depression), Yik Yak’s success has been meteoric. Although the app is only a year and a half old, it has an estimated valuation close to $400 million and millions of active members using it every month.
Social scientists have discovered that affinity to other individuals can increase commitment and foster cooperation in online communities. For instance, Reddit an anonymous news and social-networking site, very popular amongst young male users, has relatively limited bullying. The site promotes free speech on a wide range of topics, but has specific rules and ‘reddiquettes’ (community values) that are rigorously monitored by moderators and fellow ‘redditors’. Setting up a positive tone and clear social norms from the beginning can, perhaps, deter trolls from acting out.
So, why is it that platforms such as Secret and Yik Yak that congregate like-minded people, fail so strongly to promote and channel constructive and empathic conversation?
Anonymity apps clearly have an audience. Yik Yak’s success and the continued rise of such platforms (currently more than 30 are available in the app store) point to a palpable desire for communication outlets that protect the user's identify.
Looking ahead, brands and developers have an interesting challenge: They need to balance the demand for anonymity with safeguards that protect users from being bullied, trolled or tormented. Although bullying isn’t new, and was around long before the digital era, anonymity apps are the perfect platform for bullying to go viral. The cover and range they provide is simply too tempting for potential violators.
More and more, it appears brands are getting the message. As Kayvon Beykpour, founder of the raw and uncensored live-streaming app Periscope mentioned in relation to complaints that the app’s comments function allows women to be trolled: “We’ll be damned if we let it be turned into a tool to harass or be harassed.”
Veronica Marquez is senior digital research executive with Flamingo NY