Yik Yak’s demise did not signal the end of secret-sharing apps, in case you know what most of those words mean. Now, there’s a new anonymous messaging service called Sarahah topping the free app charts, blowing up social media, and scaring the hell out of parents.
I know: Ugh. You can already picture the stories now about the shitstorm of bullying, racism, and all kinds of other garbage behavior.
Inevitably, those stories will talk about how trolling has been the downfall of other secret apps. Yik Yak, for example, generated anonymous message boards based on location—gained infamy for cyber bullying, violent threats, and racism—and shut down this spring. And there was Secret, which allowed friends to send each other anonymous messages. That shut down in 2015. Whisper recently laid off 20 percent of its staff. ASKfm has been linked to several teen suicides. After School was banned from the Apple Store because of school shooting threats, hate speech, and other issues. And on it goes.
Bullying and threats of violence plague these services. But that’s almost never a death sentence. The noble citizens of the internet find it impossible to resist petty, self-destructive services. Sarahah and its ilk are irresistible because they tap into a primal part of human nature, and it’s human nature that brings them down. We have short attention spans—and secret apps just can’t hold it.
If you could find out what people really thought about you, would you want to?
Sarahah, named for the Arabic word that translates roughly to “openness,” was conceptualized as a service for employees to give honest, anonymous feedback about their bosses. That was nice, but the app only became big in the Middle East and North Africa when people began soliciting comments from friends and strangers. Users sign up and get a unique link that they can share. Anyone with the link is invited by the app to “Leave a constructive message :).”
Last month, the service opened up to English speakers and began to piggyback off of other apps. Sarahah users post links in Instagram live feeds, on Twitter, or on Snapchat stories—and then post Q&A-style responses and air their Sarahah-fueled clapbacks and frustration there, too.
Blayr Nias, a comedian in North Carolina, heard about Sarahah from a friend on Facebook. Intrigued, Nias signed up, posted her unique link on social media, and asked for honest criticism—with one caveat. “My Facebook post was about how I finally caved and got the app,” she said, “but that my friends could find me later crying in the fetal position.”
Like Nias, many of the people flooding social media to post their link mention that they know they’ll regret making the account.
Shitty behavior is an inevitable and unfortunate, aspect of anonymous apps. For many people, potentially subjecting themselves to that abuse seems icky, counterproductive, and immature. But why have so many people ignored their intuition and signed up anyway?
Humans have long been designed to love gossip, says Frank McAndrew, a professor at Knox College who studies gossip. Our ancestors exchanged information about who was fighting, who was dangerous, and who getting frisky in order to survive. This evolutionary motivation hasn’t gone away.
“This drives our interest in social media of all kinds,” he says. “Part of being successful is knowing about yourself and what people think about you.”
But even Insta obsessives know that likes aren’t an honest portrayal of what others actually think of you.
“We’re restrained in day-to-day life from saying negative things,” McAndrew says. “Even though we’re fascinated by gossip, no one wants to be known as a gossip. The anonymous world frees them up to engage in sharing judgment of others without paying any of the prices.”
Thinking of online anonymity may conjure memories of Twitter’s egg avatars (RIP) or trolls on 4Chan. But it’s long been a part of internet culture (and a concern of olds everywhere). For context, The New Yorker’s famous “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” cartoon was published in freaking 1993, which is positively prehistoric in internet years. Anonymity is the entire premise of the gloriously dated You’ve Got Mail and it’s the reason why creeps from AOL chat rooms asked for your “ASL.” With Facebook as the exception, most services have always allowed for some level of anonymity. Secret apps just make it the rule rather than an option.
Unfortunately, as studies have shown, people feel free to be their worst selves without the bounds of real-world identities. There’s even a fancy term for it: “online disinhibition effect.” (Though you don’t need a study to tell you that if you’ve ever checked out the comments section of a news site—HI, READERS.)
Okay, so most of us know that anonymity breeds assholes. Even so, we still have an inflated view of our tolerance for criticism, says Ben Zhao, a computer science professor at the University of Chicago who studied the anonymous app Whisper.
“We all want to be the person who is fair and honest, and who can take criticism and be generous in all ways,” he says.
All those people posting about their future Sarahah regrets? While they’re “fearful they might get some negative feedback, they might not have a clue of how they’re opening themselves up to abuse,” McAndrew says.
Search through Twitter posts about Sarahah and you’ll see screencaps of well-intentioned comments—confessions of love, pleasant notes from friends, so on. But you’ll also see plenty of bad behavior on display, too. Even in a tutorial someone made about linking Sarahah and Snapchat, a Sarahah notification pops up that reads, “you’re ugly” with a kissy face and a heart. YouTubers, predictably, have already posted loads of videos where they read mean comments and fake shock for the camera.
Sure, friends, family members, co-workers, and sexy secret admirers might give you some good feedback at first. But if your link gets leaked to the world? “The number of people who can say random, hurtful things is infinite,” Zhao says.
So are some people getting turned off of Sarahah because they’re being bullied? Certainly. Might it become a breeding ground for racism, sexism, and teen suicide? Sure.
But, for most people, it will just get old really fast. We, the citizens of the internet, tolerate a lot of hate. The one thing we can’t hang with? Boredom.
In April 2016, David Byttow, co-founder of the defunct app Secret, wrote a Medium post about the failure of anonymous apps. Secret shut down in 2015 and, though Yik Yak hadn’t quit yet, Byttow correctly predicted that it was just a matter of time. The problem with anonymous apps, he speculated, was a lack of community.
He noticed a pattern at Secret: There were big spikes in engagement followed by big drops. Group of users would discover the app, opt in, and then quit soon after. Though some of those bumps correlated with predictable events—students downloaded school-focused apps at the beginning of the academic year, but then dropped it later as homework picked up—it seemed to be true of all the anonymous apps he looked at.
The apps don’t have sticking power precisely because users are anonymous. They can’t “form and strengthen lasting relationships with others,” he wrote. “[…] Identity allows for continuity, anonymity doesn’t, and continuity is necessary to strengthen relationships.”
He added, “An anonymous app can offer a lot of entertainment and a great escape from reality, but as long as it doesn’t serve an actual useful purpose in our daily lives and tie back into reality, it won’t stand the test of time.” Maybe you think Facebook is annoying, but you probably won’t delete it, because who knows when a friend will announce an engagement or you’ll get an event invite.
After the initial adrenaline rush of using anonymous apps, particularly ones where you aren’t motivated to become part of a community-focused message board or build a reputation for your pseudonymous username? It gets dull.
Nias, the comedian, says that, to her surprise, she only received positive feedback (plus a random message that just said, “Hi from Poland”). Some of her friends have gotten negative messages, but only criticism that Nias thinks is warranted. Nias likes the app. She’s had a good experience. Still, she’s pretty much over it.
“I’m probably not going to check back with it again, it’s served its purpose,” she says. It was a fun experiment, but one that was over for her in less than a week.
And so the cycle of interest and burnout goes on: We sign up, expose ourselves to negativity and trolling, but mostly just find the whole thing dull and move on. Then the next anonymous service will pique our curiosity enough that, once again, we hop on the hype train and start all over again. “It’s not long-lived on the user level, but it is on the societal level,” as Zhao says. “There’s a need for private communication that does away with tangible user names.”
So your interest may burn bright and then burn out. In the meantime, just make sure that you can handle the heat.