You'd think with all the bad press anonymous apps like Yik Yak, Secret, Ask.fm, and Whisper get, we'd have heard the last of them, right?
Yet last week I learned of another a new anonymous app, this one called Unseen. Co-founder Michael Schramm (who, by the way, has been quoted saying, "I hate anonymous apps, I think they're garbage") was unabashedly enthusiastic about his new startup when we spoke.
"It's important that apps like this exist," claims Schramm, "because privacy is a human right." The anonymity and privacy that apps like Unseen provide, argues Schramm, encourages users (in the case of Unseen, users are primarily college students) to have open and transparent "conversations" (Unseen is a photo-sharing app), sometimes surrounding sensitive issues and events. Take recent events in Ferguson, for example. College kids were "seen" on Unseen posting images, making controversial statements, and (mostly) asking one another questions, in an effort to understand events as they transpired.
Schramm's assessment is that much of what kids were posting on Unseen they'd be uncomfortable posting somewhere like Facebook, for example, for fear it would tarnish the carefully curated public profiles they've been taught parents, colleges, and employers want to see. In other words, anonymous networks liberate and allow young people to "express themselves in ways that don't fit normal social conventions."
Still skeptical about all this, I reached out to Catherine Teitelbaum, Chief Trust & Safety Officer of an anonymous social network that's no stranger to its own share of bad press: Ask.fm. According to Teitelbaum, young people have received our message, loud and clear, about the permanence and importance of their "digital footprints." Additionally, she says, young people "feel a burden about everything they post being tracked and followed." That's why they crave the opportunity to be anonymous.
Teitelbaum told me a story about a young man, an aspiring artist, who uses Ask.fm to ask professional artists anonymous questions that might be viewed as silly or naïve. It's his way of learning more about his craft.
Like Schramm, she calls this "liberating" for young people.
It's important to note that both Unseen and Ask.fm are making huge new efforts to moderate their sites. According to Schramm, "unanimity unchecked is a dangerous thing, so it's our duty to protect our users through careful, thoughtful, moderation." Ask.fm, recently acquired by Ask.com, has also placed a renewed emphasis on safety, including hiring Teitelbaum, who is the former director of global safety and product policy for Yahoo, and a well respected advocate for online child safety.
However, even with these safety measures in place, kids will be kids (by "kids" I mean those at least 13 years of age, the minimum age of use for Ask.fm; or "kids" at least 17, the minimum age for Unseen, Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper). Sure there's still a lot of profanity, sex talk, and all that on these platforms, at least from what I can see. But is that really the fault of these apps? Or does our society, in general, have a responsibility to:
- Teach kids basic digital citizenship skills before they start using social networks?
- Ensure kids don't join these communities unless they meet the minimum age requirements?
I'd argue we have a responsibility to do both.
So before we throw the baby (anonymous apps) out with the bath water, perhaps it's worth considering three things:
- Careful branding is exhausting. So maybe, just maybe, it's okay to provide a place online where kids (over a certain age of course) can express themselves without it affecting, like, their whole entire future.
- Moderation seems to work. "Unanimity unchecked is dangerous," says Schramm. It's our duty to protect our users." Moderation (removing trolls, posts that add no value, and providing a safe environment) seems be working, at least in the case of Unseen where Schramm claims they have little issue with underage kids using the app, or cyber bullying for that matter. Ask.fm is also seeing the positive results of their increased attention to moderation and safety.
- Kids are actually alright. As a mom and a digital literacy educator, I spend a lot of time around teens and my entirely unscientific assessment is that there are a lot of great ones out there. So I believe that through a partnership of parental guidance and corporate responsibility (on the part of these apps making a serious effort to keep their playgrounds safe), there can be places for kids to express themselves freely and to try out versions of themselves that they can't try out when all eyes are on them. As Teitelbaum argues, "part of being a teenager is being able to explore who you are as a person." And as every adult surely knows, sometimes the road to adulthood is a bumpy one.
Schramm told me he hopes to build a quality product that ultimately "improves lives in positive ways." That's a great goal, but one he can't achieve on his own. Parents and educators need to do their part to, both by educating kids about behavioral skills and encouraging respect for age requirements. Because at the end of the day, conversation, anonymous or otherwise, is all about connecting with others who want and look forward to connecting with you in positive ways.