When you scroll through lists of comments on YouTube, Reddit, etc., you are likely to find a number of outrageously unkind comments. That the internet causes people to be more apathetic to others’ feelings due to the degree of removal from behind a screen is a phenomenon that unfortunately makes a lot of sense. ”Commenting without consequences” has led to death threats, destroyed social lives, and suicides – not to mention the reverberating effects on the families and communities of those in the spotlight. Despite efforts to curb this behavior, including the introduction of new laws to prevent cyberbullying and functionality on some websites that allows users to report inappropriate behavior, some forums are more difficult to control this behavior—specifically anonymous platforms.
The increasing popularity of anonymous platforms is a red flag. If people intend to be kind on the internet, they should be able to stand by what they post with their identity revealed. Adding anonymity into the mix seems like a recipe for disaster: decreasing accountability in a medium that already lacks accountability and that has already led to tragic outcomes. Nevertheless, the demand continues to be met for these anonymous platforms.
As we have discussed in class, platforms like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft work only because users are held accountable for their actions. Their rating systems are an integral part of their success because they build trust in users and providers. If accountability has brought success for these companies and lack of accountability has led to societal dysfunction, why are we producing platforms that mimic the latter? Why are we ignoring the track record?
As most of us probably remember, YikYak had a burst of popularity for about a year at BC and on many other campuses. Many of the posts on YikYak were funny and entertaining. But people inevitably began to post rude and taunting messages, knowing their identities were protected. There were even instances of students posting bomb threats during finals in order to get their exams cancelled. Accountability is key for a functional society, and without it, the community’s sense of security is made vulnerable.
A new app called TBH has engineered a way to use anonymity in a positive way. Rather than using an open text box, TBH gives multiple choice questions with only positive options. The interface is shown below:
As the TBH team explains, “our goals for anonymity are much different than most apps [that emphasize] the ability to say things without repercussions. 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.” This application of anonymity applies the appropriate constraints in order to remove the need for accountability.
“Sarahah,” the Arabic word for “honesty”, is described in the app store as, “Helping you discover your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving honest feedback from your employees and your friends in a private manner.” Sarahah is meant to foster improvement in both career and personal life. However, an anonymous app that explicitly encourages “constructive” criticism can lead to some negative consequences. The founders claim to have taken precautions against what could be interpreted as brutally honest feedback by filtering out certain negative keywords and including a prompt in the message field saying, “Leave a constructive message J.” Predictably, these small steps have not entirely prevented abuse of the platform. Furthermore, in August 2017 the app had over 62 million users with most of the growth coming from teens, a population that is likely more inclined to take advantage of the anonymity afforded to them through the app.
In a time when face to face confrontation has become so easy to avoid, I am not at all surprised by the popularity of these apps. But without being forced to confront people face to face, people no longer make an effort to confront as nicely as possible. A friend of mine was recently feeling guilty about rejecting a job offer when another friend said, “This is why god invented email.” Of course, email is not anonymous, but it is one degree of separation further than a phone call.
Anonymous apps add infinite more degrees of distance. When anonymous apps can be implemented in an airtight way so that they cannot be taken advantage of, like TBH, perhaps there is positive side of anonymous commenting (but the question then becomes, is it a viable product that will trend in the same way as other more flexible anonymous apps?). Otherwise, I think we should reevaluate how much value they add given how much hurt they can cause.