The end of Secret, the end of anonymous social media apps?
How to stay anonymous on the web? It sounds like a trick question when the web constantly tracks your online behaviour and requires you to upload a user account on nearly every website you visit. However, the solution seems to be closer than you might think. In March 2012 the first anonymous social media app was launched, called Whisper. As the name might suggest this app is commonly used to share your deepest secrets and confessions whilst staying anonymous.
These ‘secret sharing apps’ show a completely new way of communicating. In comparison to social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter the anonymous social media apps focus more on the content of posts. Since anonymous social media apps do not require users to upload a user account the emphasis is more on what users say instead of who says it. This gives the users of anonymous social media apps the feeling that they are all equal which encourages them to share their feelings online without being judged. Being anonymous on the web also leads to users to express their frustration, anger and sadness. This results in Whisper being filled with more negative content than positive (Correa, et al. 2015, 8).
The downside of anonymous social media apps
However, the main downside of being anonymous on the web is that people cannot be tracked down which leads to cyberbullying. The founders of one of the biggest anonymous social media apps, Secret, decided to shut down their app after dealing with cyberbullying, racism and sexism since the moment it launched in December 2013 (Constine 2015; Thielman 2015). This raises a number of questions. What is the reason that in a social media savvy culture where more and more people are aware of the dangers of posting personal information online, an anonymous social media app is being abused? And why should specifically this Secret app shut down and not other anonymous social media app?
The end of Secret
Besides Whisper and Secret, Yik Yak is another leader in the anonymous social media app scene. Characteristic of anonymous social media apps is that they do not require users to upload a user account. Users can upload a post and comment on other posts while staying anonymous. The various anonymous social media apps are used for different purposes based on who their posts are shared with. Whisper and Yik Yak share users’ posts with other users based on their location. If you post a status on Yik Yak, also referred to as a ‘Yak’, it will be shared with everyone using the Yik Yak app in 1.5 km radius of you. As a result this app is commonly used among students on campus to share gossip and events (Parkinson 2015).
Secret, however, shares the users’ posts with people from their phonebook who also have the app downloaded. This could be one of the reasons why this app was being abused. A study on anonymous social media apps has shown that if users read offensive comments directed at a member of the same social group they will experience it as more distasteful in comparison to an offensive comment directed towards a celebrity or a random person (Whittaker and Kowalski 2015, 20-21).
Social media apps vs. anonymous social media apps
Anonymous social media apps are increasingly coping with cyberbullying compared to other social media apps (Whittaker and Kowalksi 2015, 25). One of the reasons for this trend is that cyberbullying mainly occurs through indirect messaging such as comments and forum replies instead of direct private messaging (Whittaker and Kowalksi 2015, 25-26). Therefore, anonymous social media apps are the perfect target for cyberbullying since it is possible to send indirect messages while addressing many users at once, yet staying anonymous. Facebook on the other hands hardly deals with cyberbullying since the messaging forms are often directed only to friends or known group members and, as a result, less anonymous (Whittaker and Kowalksi 2015, 25)
The future of anonymous social media apps
Nevertheless, studies have also shown that as new technology forms emerge, new forms of response to cyberbullying appear (Whittaker and Kowalksi 2015, 16). Increasingly users block and report cyberbullying which shows that there is a growing awareness of cyberbullying and how to react to it (Whittaker and Kowalksi 2015, 17; Wang, et al. 2014, 10). Therefore, I believe that with the right adjustments and policy settings anonymous apps will be here to stay. This has already been seen in the adjusted policy settings of Yik Yak, which now actively tracks down inappropriate and offensive ‘Yaks’ by filtering out certain offensive language terms (Brait 2015). Also, cyberbullying tools are actively being improved so that they can automatically track down cyberbullying based on the content, context and sentiment of the message (Whittaker and Kowalksi 2015, 21-22). Although ‘Secret’ has fallen by way side, I believe that there is still a market for people who want to anonymously share their secrets on the Internet.
Brait, Ellen. “No names attached: college students drive anonymous apps trend.” The Guardian. 2015. 7 September 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/sep/06/anonymous-apps-college-students-yik-yak-whatsgoodly>.
Constine, Josh. “Secret Shuts Down.” Techcrunch. 2015. 13 September 2015. <http://techcrunch.com/2015/04/29/psst/#.stcoug:mGYG>.
Correa, Denzil, et al. “The Many Shades of Anonymity: Characterizing Anonymous Social Media Content.” Ninth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. 2015.
Parkinson, Hannah Jane. “Yik Yak: the anonymous social media app taking US college campus by storm.” The Guardian. 2015. 7 September 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/21/yik-yak-anonymous-app-college-campus-whisper-secret>.
Thielman, Sam. “Controversial anonymous networking app Secret to close down.” The Guardian. 2015. 7 September 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/29/secret-controversial-anonymous-networking-app-close-down>.
Wang, Gang, et al. “Whispers in the dark: analysis of an anonymous social network.” Proceedings of the 2014 Conference on Internet Measurement Conference. ACM, 2014.
Whittaker, Elizabeth, and Kowalski, Robin M. “Cyberbullying Via Social Media.” Journal of School Violence. 14. 1 (2015): 11-29.