Anonymous social media's roots go back to 2007 when, according to a report published by CNN, Juicy Campus launched and encouraged users to spread gossip about each other instead of talking about themselves. Under the cloak of anonymity, users willingly complied until the network fizzled out two years later. Today, the idea of anonymous social media is stronger than ever and backed by plenty of financial support, but there's debate over the pros and cons associated with using this type of network.
Supporters of Anonymous Social Media
As CNN also notes, the two most popular anonymous social networks, Secret and Whisper, have garnered more than $60 million in investor dollars. Yik Yak, another recent addition to the genre, has already raised nearly $12 million, according to The Guardian. Even Facebook has entered the arena by launching a quasi-anonymous app called Rooms.
Proponents of these apps offer several reasons why they believe the technology is good.
- The Economist, Whisper's owner, Michael Heyward, defended his app by tweeting a screen shot of a whisper that read "This girl talked to me on whisper because of a self harm post she doesn't know she saved my life." Heyward and others contend that since users are not identified, troubled individuals can find help from a non-judgmental source through apps like Whisper.
- Encourages meaningful dialog: Along the same lines, proponents believe that meaningful dialog can push important issues to the forefront because a person can comment without fear of repercussion, such as from an employer. These situations would enable whistle blowers to draw attention to bona fide issues that might otherwise be pushed aside.
- Becomes a source for breaking news: Some journalists have started using Whisper to report on the tech industry, and CNN reports that one of the goals of Whisper's editor-in-chief is to encourage its users to post news as it happens. Earlier in 2014, the company joined forces with Buzz Feed to curate news from the anonymous posts that occur on the network.
- Generates unbiased advice: Many people post life events on Facebook to share with family and friends, such as an upcoming wedding. However, some of those same people will turn to anonymous sites to ask for life advice when they feel uncomfortable sharing person details with a friend.
- Provides entertainment via gossip and humor: The Guardian also noted that some Yik Yak users seem to use the app as a way to share a little laughter by posting one-liners and jokes. Others use the anonymous sites to report on celebrity and gossip news. One Whisper user reported Gwyneth Paltrow's affair months before she and her husband, Chris Martin, officially announced their split.
Critics of Anonymous Social Media
People who oppose the concept of anonymous commenting see these apps as tools that perpetuate cyber-bullying, slander, and other less-desirable human traits. Critics reason if the restraints of societal rules are removed, condescending remarks and nasty behavior become more prevalent on the Internet.
- Potential for ruined lives: Netscape co-founder, Marc Andreessen, is one of the leading critics of anonymous social sites. He called out the various investors and developers who are pumping money and effort into Whisper, Secret, and other apps by voicing his opposition and saying people needed to decide if the systems are legitimate from an "ethical and moral point of view." In his Twitter dialog, he lamented that many of these experiments start out fun, but "end with broken hearts and ruined lives."
- Potential for slander and abusive posts: One of the most common criticisms from opponents is how easily a user can post a libelous or defaming remark about an individual, which often puts the victim at the disadvantage of having to prove the statement false. This concern seems justified and, in fact, Secret now warns its users not to post anything defamatory or insensitive about other people, or the post will be removed.
- Anonymous Violence: Beyond the concern of cyber-bullying and abusive posts, even more serious concerns have arisen about some of these apps. According to The Guardian, Yik Yak recently worked with police officials when high schools were being targeted anonymously with bombing and shooting threats. The company has taken steps to prevent the use of the app at high schools by incorporating geo-fencing and other methods.
Not Really Anonymous
Despite the claims that users are anonymous, a careful look at these apps' guidelines and rules tells a different story. These companies admit their willingness and legal obligation to work with law enforcement officials. Most follow procedures similar to protocol used by message boards and forums, which permit a site to verify a user's identity if necessary. However, some sites, like Whisper, seem to go a bit further in what they track since they have considered targeted advertising for their users. In the end, it looks like users aren't quite so anonymous after all.