Have you ever told a stranger a secret about yourself online? Did you feel a certain kind of freedom doing so, specifically because the context was removed from your everyday life? Personal disclosure and anonymity have long been a potent mix laced through our online interactions. We’ve recently seen this through the resurgence of anonymous question apps targeting young people, including Sendit and NGL (which stands for “not gonna lie”). The latter has been installed 15 million times globally, according to recent reports. These apps can be linked to users’ Instagram and Snapchat accounts, allowing them to post questions and receive anonymous answers from followers. Although they’re trending at the moment, it’s not the first time we’ve seen them. Early examples include ASKfm, launched in 2010, and Spring.me, launched in 2009 (as “Fromspring”).
These platforms have a troublesome history. As a sociologist of technology, I’ve studied humantechnology encounters in contentious environments. Here’s my take on why anonymous question apps have once again taken the internet by storm, and what their impact might be. We know teens are drawn to social platforms. These networks connect them with their peers, support their journeys towards forming identity, and provide them space for experimentation, creativity and bonding. We also know they manage online disclosures of their identity and personal life through a technique sociologists call “audience segregation”, or “code switching”. This means they’re likely to present themselves differently online to their parents than they are to their peers. Digital cultures have long used online anonymity to separate realworld identities from online personas, both for privacy and in response to online surveillance.
And research has shown online anonymity enhances self-disclosure and honesty. For young people, having online spaces to express themselves away from the adult gaze is important. Anonymous question apps provide this space. They promise to offer the very things young people seek: opportunities for self-expression and authentic encounters. We now have a generation of kids growing up with the internet. On one hand, young people are hailed as pioneers of the digital age ~ and on they other, we fear for them as its innocent victims. A recent TechCrunch article chronicled the rapid uptake of anonymous question apps by young users, and raised concerns about transparency and safety. NGL exploded in popularity this year, but hasn’t solved the issue of hate speech and bullying.
Anonymous chat app YikYak was shut down in 2017 after becoming littered with hateful speech ~ but has since returned. These apps are designed to hook users in. They leverage certain platform principles to provide a highly engaging experience, such as interactivity and gamification (wherein a form of “play” is introduced into nongaming platforms). Also, given their experimental nature, they’re a good example of how social media platforms have historically been developed with a “move fast and break things” attitude.