Remember Yik Yak, the anonymous posting app in which your posts went to a Twitter-like feed and were up-voted or down-voted by others in your area? While there were some funny posts, there were many that were targeted attacks on specific individuals posted behind the mask of anonymity. Now, imagine that someone created an app that essentially combined Yik Yak and Snapchat, allowing users to anonymously message one another. Presumably, some very nasty things would be said. Enter one of your high school’s hottest apps right now – Sarahah.
Developed in Saudi Arabia, the original purpose of Sarahah was to provide a platform for shy employees to give anonymous feedback to their managers. This eliminates the need for courage to walk into your managers office and state what he/she is doing wrong, and also eliminates the repercussions of your manager holding a grudge against you for telling him/her how to do his/her job. As we’ve seen with practically every technology, there is a difference between how the developer envisioned its use and how society adopts it and actually uses it. Thanks to high school students promoting their accounts on their Snapchats, Sarahah has grown to 95 million registered users (with the US as its biggest base).
The largest unintended consequence of this, one we’ve seen with other anonymous communication platforms, is the prevalence of cyber bullying. In a recent WSJ article about the app, they interviewed a few of its high school users. Many said that they screenshot the funny messages they receive on Sarahah and post them to their Snap stories for their friends to see. Thus, when others see these screenshots, they too are curious and download the app. One interviewee stated they’ve begun downloading the app out of “morbid curiosity” but goes on to state that “in the hands of high schoolers…it could really destroy you”. Another said she was called “fake” every day for a week and “felt beaten down by it”.
With only two employees working out of a city in Saudi Arabia, Sarahah has done the most it can to address this problem. They’ve introduced filters to attempt to prevent messages from being sent, a block user feature, and an option to ask a user to “leave a constructive message :)” before clicking send. However, this is often not enough, and teens have found it easy to circumvent the filters.
I think this app could use reform that Harris mentions in his TED talk video from last week (https://www.ted.com/talks/tristan_harris_the_manipulative_tricks_tech_companies_use_to_capture_your_attention). It’s clear that they currently do not have the workforce nor the resources to completely transform the design of their platform. When one platform fails to meet demands of its users and society, or when another comes along and can do what one platform is doing better (as we saw with Facebook and Myspace), someone will swoop in and steal many, if not all, users. Enter tbh, the #1 free app on the Apple store right now that just launched last month.
This graph shows tbh’s App Store ranking on the left axis and how it has changed in the last two months (it is still number one as of this post).
You’re probably thinking “Wait, so you’re telling me another app I’ve never heard of is #1 in the app store right now?”. Yes, exactly. tbh has used Harris’s advice and remade the Sarahah platform into what they wanted it to be – “We worked backwards from the content we wanted to see, which was nice comments about ourselves — a product you’d open and it’d tell you all your strengths and things you’re good at and make you happier and more productive.” Rather than letting users ask friends for anonymous responses of “What do you think of me?”, something that leads to cyber bullying, tbh writes more positive prompts for you, such as “Who should DJ at a party?” and randomly gives four of your friends as multiple choice answers; all votes are anonymous.
All responses are saved, so you can view others’ positive responses about you whenever you wish. Additionally, to keep the app fresh, you are only allowed to answer 12 questions an hour (this keeps use minimal and the questions/possible responses different). “Our goals for anonymity are much different than most apps [that emphasize] the ability to say things without repercussions,” the tbh team explains. “This is more about the ability to tell people more of the things that make them happy. One is more targeted toward harassment while ours is more targeted towards making people better off.”
Going forward, tbh has to figure out how to continue their rapid growth while at the same time holding off the next market entrant. They also have to ensure that whatever updates they make continue to foster positivity. “It’s hard to develop products where you want to ensure positive communication,” says Midnight Labs (the design team). “We have to be really diligent in how we think through how users interact with each other. We can’t have any oversights in how we design features.” The team also must think about adding in app purchases, such as paying to have more than 12 responses an hour. However, TechCrunch writes that a smarter strategy would be for tbh to focus on growth and retention in order to establish a user base that’s too big to be swallowed up. TechCrunch writes “Until it reaches escape velocity, it’s vulnerable to Facebook’s copy-cat factory. Still, the team is confident, saying “By the time we have a clone, we’re 10 steps ahead. We know what product and experience people want.””.
tbh is the perfect example of an app that is transforming social media along the lines of Harris’s recommendations. There are plenty of studies out there showing that our excessive social media use is negatively impacting our lives, with teens and young adults reporting depression after app use; this does not even take into account cyber bullying. Although tbh is at a basic level currently designed for teens, it is positive feedback that I’m sure each and every one of us could use.