There’s a reason CW’s hit show Gossip Girl ran on for seven whole seasons – the fact that for that entire period, the identity of ‘Gossip Girl’ was never revealed. Unsurprisingly, the minute we all learn in the very last episode of the series that it was Lonely Boy, aka Dan Humphrey, all along, the mystery and hype accompanying the show dies a quick swift death. There was nothing exciting about watching a show about the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite as told by an anonymous outsider, when they are no longer anonymous.
The reason behind using a pop-culture reference to prove the appeal of anonymity is because, strangely enough, the show wasn’t too far off from reality. Human beings have been notoriously attracted to the notion of being allowed to voice their opinions anonymously. The notion of speaking our minds without having to reveal our identities has always been attractive, irrespective of the purpose behind it.
According to the Guardian, 86 percent of people have taken steps to protect their information and hide their identity online in recent years. Now the internet is doing it for them. Since 2012, several ‘secret’ apps have come out, which allow users to post, share, and interact with others anonymously. While most of them have fizzled into obscurity, a new player has emerged on the global market, and it looks like it’s here to stay.
Sarahah, an app designed to send and receive ‘constructive’ feedback between its users, made the top download ranks in countries like the UK, USA, Canada and Australia earlier this year, before entering the Indian markets a few weeks ago. The app, which was first created as a site by Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, was initially developed in November of last year, and was based on the premise of ‘frankness’ or ‘honesty’, which is what ‘Sarahah’ means in Arabic. Simply put, Tawfiq’s idea for the app was to create a platform for people to send and receive anonymous feedback to one another, which was constructive yet encouraging, in every sense.
"Sarahah helps you discover your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving honest feedback from your employees and friends in a private manner,” Tawfiq said.
Without looking at the many loopholes and ways this app can be used for passing negative comments and bullying, let’s focus instead on the mental health benefits of Sarahah, along with other similar market players like Secret and Whisper, when used in the right way.
You’ve probably noticed that your Facebook newsfeed has been filled with people sharing messages they have received from anonymous senders. In a way, Sarahah could work as a confessions page, where instead of declaring childhood crushes, users could send across words of encouragement, positive thoughts, and feedback. This can become a real framework of how the individual in concern could improve themselves. Tawfiq had initially planned for the app to be used by employees to offer anonymous feedback to their bosses and each other, but he soon realized it had potential impact outside the professional front as well.
While the concept behind Sarahah isn’t a new one per se, there are certain measures in this app which make it stand out from its predecessors or competitors. Firstly, it is more credible in terms of privacy value, because it lets users block the stream of messages coming from any particular individual. For instance, say X has been sending you a series of uncomfortable messages; you can just block X altogether, so even though you may not know his/her identity, they won’t be able to send you any more messages. Secondly, the messages you receive are exclusively for you to view, unless you decide to share them with your network on social media. Finally, this app, if used rightly, can help and encourage people to feel better about themselves and their relationships with others, even if they don’t know who the others are in this case. It can work as a great mental boost for many.
Launched in 2012, Whisper is a propriety iOS and Android app which allows its users to post and share photo and video messages respectively. The texts shared by the users were usually superimposed upon a relevant image, mostly shadowing the theme behind the gifs and memes we know and follow religiously today. A mere two years after its initial launch, Whisper was valued at $200 million and continued to grow aggressively for the next few years. It acted as a kind of public confessions platform, which was more humorous than reflective, and which prided itself in its anonymity. Nobody using the platform knew the identity of any other single user on the same.
Secret was launched by David Byttow in 2014. It was presented as a kind of “anti-Facebook, where you can actually say shit [sic] that represents your most authentic self, as opposed to your best self.” The app initially meant for its users to post anonymous content and view the anonymous content of others – except, and this is what makes it different, it posted only the anonymous content of the user’s friends based on their connections. In a way, this made a lot of users feel more secure, because the content they saw on the site, irrespective of what it was (musings, advice, questions) were all coming from their friends or from friends of friends.
Despite raising $35 million and a user-base expanding up to several thousand, Secret folded and shut down in 2015 after facing lawsuits regarding privacy issues and other pertinent factors. But in its prime, it helped its users receive vital information and advice related to the industries they worked in, individuals they followed, and updates about the same. Simply put, it helped them connect, form kinsmanship, and talk freely, without the fear of being recognized and judged.
Similar apps like Yik Yak, Ask.fm, Sayat.me, and Vent, though helpful in their respective times and ways, have received significant criticism over privacy concerns. People began to misuse these platforms and began to post, share, and send insensitive and mean messages towards one another, which beat the entire goal of using them to help spread positive thought and actions. It remains to be seen if Sarahah will succumb to the same fate, or if it can maintain its goal of only professing ‘constructive’ feedback and comments.