“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” - George Berkeley, Anglo-Irish philosopher
A modern reinterpretation of the above phrase could be: “If an anonymous messaging app falters on the app store and no one is around to rate it, do its push notifications make a sound?”
Let us learn more about Sarahah, the anonymous feedback app that is currently trending, and the challenges it now faces.
Most products are either unanimously liked or hated. But then there are those where user feedback borders on extremes because of the lack of quality control and extent of personalisation possible. Sarahah, the anonymous feedback app, seems to fall into the latter category. A cursory glance at the app’s Google Play account shows that the app has received over 10,000 five-star reviews and also over 10,000 one-star reviews. Users seem to either love or hate Sarahah, with no real middle ground.
These extreme emotions could be attributed to the fact that while the app has been designed for ‘constructive, anonymous’ feedback, some people are relying on Sarahah to give harsh feedback or even engage in cyberbullying.
Story so far
Created by Saudi programmer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, Sarahah was initially launched in Egypt. Sarahah, which means ‘honesty’ in Arabic, was launched as a website to allow employees to give their bosses anonymous feedback. In an interview with Financial Times, Tawfiq said that a lot of the feedback showed that users were interested in knowing what their friends and family, and not just coworkers, really thought about them.
So in February 2017, he opened Sarahah up to the general public. Since then, the platform has gained steady traction worldwide. On August 6, Sarahah shared an update on Twitter:
YourStory reached out to the Sarahah team to learn more about their back story, current focus, and future plans. After more than 24 hours and multiple emails, the Sarahah team hasn’t yet responded to the request. We will update this story with their inputs if and when the team responds.
How Sarahah works
To get a better perspective of how Sarahah works and why it has become the social media phenomenon it currently is, I signed up on the platform. While the terms and conditions of Sarahah are fairly straightforward, the public use and privacy policies state that users should commit to ethics and values and refrain from insult and abuse of the site. Two terms that seemed harsher, though, were:
- Denial of access: “Sarahah has the right to block any user from accessing the website or using its services in general.”
- Inactive accounts: “Sarahah has the right to remove inactive accounts under the duration that Sarahah sees adequate.”
The rest of the instructions are straightforward and setting up the app is a relatively short process. Users then have the option of tweaking their privacy settings and selecting if they want their name to appear in the in-app search results and also decide if they want unauthorised people (users who don’t have Sarahah accounts) to post feedback on their profile.
On its website, Sarahah noted that the goal of the app is to let coworkers give users feedback on their areas of strength and areas for improvement. On a personal front, the goal seems to be similar, with the added feature of letting friends be honest with you.
Within the first few hours of downloading the app, I realised why the app store ratings border on extremes. The feedback I got was evenly spread between funny, constructive comments and harsh, hateful remarks.
After getting feedback, users have multiple options. They can report the message, block the user, add the feedback to their favourites list, or share the screenshot across social media channels. The last of these options, which is the only public call-to-action, is quite popular and has helped the app gain tremendous word-of-mouth marketing, as users publicly react to comments and let their friends or followers join in on the conversation.
Sarahah also has an ‘explore’ section, which currently seems to be under development.
Can Sarahah succeed where others have failed?
Sarahah isn’t the first anonymous messaging app in the market. YikYak, the hyperlocal anonymous messaging app once valued at $400 million, recently shut down after its failed pivot to group messaging. In May 2015, Secret, another anonymous messaging app, once valued at $100 million, shut down following legal battles and claims that it encouraged bullying. Ask.fm, which was later acquired by Ask.com, reached peak popularity in 2012 but also faced issues related to cyberbullying.
So, based on the trends in the anonymous messaging space, Sarahah will likely need to ensure stricter guidelines to reinforce its goal of sharing ‘constructive feedback’. In the same interview with Financial Times, Tawfiq had remarked that Sarahah has the ability to block offensive users based on their IP address, even if they are not registered on the site, and certain words are filtered out automatically.
One comment on Sarahah’s iOS App Store page, where it currently has a 2.8 cumulative rating for the latest version, warns other users that Sarahah isn't for the weak hearted. He remarked,
If you get good, heartwarming messages then it makes you feel better about yourself and you enjoy what this app offers. On the flip side, you will also be prone to receiving negative messages that aren't very confidence inspiring…
Sarahah is a free consumer-facing app, devoid of in-app advertising, and at this stage doesn’t seem to have a revenue model in place. Tawfiq had also remarked that Microsoft had offered Sarahah free cloud-hosting credits, which Sarahah is still running on. He had said, “If I’d had to pay for this, I would have had to borrow money or get investment.”
The Sarahah team will need to carefully pick their end-game strategies to ensure that they have a long runway as their app gains more popularity, and also notoriety, based on how the mass market adopts the platform.