TBH, you’ve never heard of the #1 app out right now: tbh

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.

blog 2.1 pic 1

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”.

blog 2.1 pic 2blog 2.1 pic 3

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.




How tbh hit #1 by turning anonymity positive



  1. Anna Copman · ·

    Thanks for your post, Andrew! Reminds me of the formspring phenomenon from when we were in high school. Interesting to see how despite the platform, these psychological and generational phenomena continue to be prevalent, and how social media has evolved and continued to provide a medium. The TBH sounds like a good idea in theory, but do you foresee it lasting as an app? Or even expanding to a larger audience (outside of middle school & high school students)?

  2. Hilary_Gould · ·

    Similar to what Anna said, this definitely reminds me of formspring and yikyak. My high school had issues with both and they ended up banning them when you were on campus because of the large amount of cyber bullying stemming from the platforms. To me, anonymous apps are not a good idea especially when in the hands of a younger audience. Although the intent of the original app makes sense in the context of Saudi Arabia, I don’t think this app will have a ton of success in the U.S. I would be shocked if it isn’t shut down soon because of bullying. Teenagers are too insecure and instead of using the app for its purpose instead use it to say mean things they would never say in person– definitely one of the dangers of online communication.

  3. maririera19 · ·

    I actually tweeted the WSJ article on Saudi this week because I thought it was really interesting how an app intended for anonymous constructive criticism in to workplace, started being misused by teenagers to cyberbully. Throughout our adolescence we have seen the rise and fall of many anonymous social platforms such as formspring, yikyak, and even Facebook’s Bathroom wall, and all these have seen countless cases of cyberbullying. I expect this trend to continue to happen because there is always going to be people who misuse these platforms to spread malice. Though thb’s aim is to only have positive anonymous feedback there will be some teens that will abuse the anonymity of the platform to cyberbully others.

  4. briandentonbc · ·

    Really interesting post. I think it is really cool how they worked backwards from the idea that people wanted to see nice content about themselves, and were able to turn that into a number one app. It is really cool that a company was able to use the “clamor for attention” that Harris discussed in order to promote positivity, and take the high road instead of relying on “morbid curiousity”. Hopefully other app developers will take notice of tbh’s success and also try to work backwards from the idea of positive content. There is so much evidence out there of how destructive cyberbullying and anonymous apps can be, I will be curious to see if this sparks a switch in the way that this category of app tries to gain the attention of users.

  5. Andrew, this is a very interesting post. I am glad you brought the app to light. I remember in high school, we had a website that everyone used to basically gossip about each other on the internet, so I’m glad that instead of promoting an app that could be susceptible to cyberbullying, another type of app is being promoted as a tool to enhance positivity. I do like the idea, however, of having the app be used as a tool for anonymous critiquing of managers.

  6. It is interesting to see that while we are that even though we all feel like we are social media experts and are even studying it for class, there is so much that we do not know. I had not heard of tbh until you brought it up to me, then we discussed further in class. I hope for the best for the app as it actually seems to be beneficial in terms of raising users’ self-esteem but only time will tell.

  7. This blog post is very well thought out as it addressed a specific app, the apps intentions, the result and then proposes an opinion about where this trend of being anonymous online may lead. I agree with you and the research you found regarding the negative effects of online apps that have the intent to be productive, however, turn out to be abused. A personal fear of mine with the lack of accountability online, is the decrease in human, face to face interaction and with that users gain a sense of false identity, ultimately taking advantage of the platform. I support applications intentions of trying to facilitate a productive forum online, however, as Anna said, the model has been around since Formspring and the same result occurred. If apps want to create this type of environment, they must change their approach.

%d bloggers like this: