In this two-part series, we’re profiling several popular anonymous messaging platforms and discussing what to consider when interacting with them. In part one we surveyed the field and provided a guide for comparing services. Here in part two we’re talking about an approach to make mindful messaging part of your privacy practice.
Why are anonymous messaging apps so appealing? Some use these apps as a release valve, an online confessional, a way to express themselves in ways they might be embarrassed or unable to face-to-face. It may be a way to express themselves more authentically. Many of us feel a psychological need to be seen, heard and accepted. Anonymous messaging apps can be an outlet for that type of connection and therefore serve a valuable purpose.
These apps can also be abused and used for negative purposes such as gossip, threats of violence and cyberbullying. The anonymous aspect often brings out the worst in people. Entrepreneur Mark Andreessen has highlighted the potential for harmful uses, posting on Twitter that these apps are “designed to encourage negative behavior, tearing people down, making fellow souls sad” and has discouraged financial investments in such startup apps and services.
Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging app popular with teens, is one of the most notorious. In some cases, users have sent threats of bombs and mass shootings via this messaging platform, leading to school lockdowns and evacuations. Sadly, many suicides have been linked to the messaging app Ask.fm as a result of victims being bullied by other Ask.fm users.
It’s up to you to determine the pros and cons of anonymous messaging apps and services. But if you do decide to engage, here are some tips to use anonymous apps mindfully and responsibly. We’ve grouped the tips in two categories – what the app does and what you choose to do. Consider these issues for yourself and, since these apps are so popular with teens, be sure to talk to your kids about their use of messaging services.
What the app does
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the app’s privacy and security practices as discussed in part one of this blog post, and are comfortable with how “anonymous” or “private” your messages truly are, the next step is to consider the type of content you (or your kids) may be exposed to.
1. Is the app intended for mature (17+) audiences?
Keep in mind that some apps (including Whisper and YikYak) are intended for mature (17+ audiences) and in those communities the messages and images tend to be more graphic and illicit. In fact, the information in the iTunes app stores about Yik Yak warns:
Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity
Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence
Frequent/Intense Profanity or Crude Humor
Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes
Frequent/Intense Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
Frequent/Intense Horror/Fear Themes.
Both Whisper and YikYak post a pop up notice before you can download the app. The notice alerts the potential user that the app “contains age restricted material” and you must tap OK to confirm that you are 17 or over. Be wary of this age screening mechanism which is not completely effective as kids can lie and game the system. As you would regarding any use of media and technology, talk to your kids about your expectations and whether they are permitted to access messaging apps that are intended for mature audiences.
2. What are the app’s content guidelines and monitoring policies?
Most of these apps offer content guidelines which prohibit posting of certain offensive or harmful content. (See e.g. Secret’s Community Guidelines and Ask.fm’s Abuse Policy and its Do’s and Don’ts Policy which cautions users “don’t say mean things” and “don’t be a bully”).
These apps rely on “self-policing” mechanisms, where user-flagging of harmful posts is a common way to have offensive or inappropriate posts deleted. Some services proactively send users a warning when they fail to follow the app guidelines and may delete a post that they have made and/or delete their account.
Secret has recently begun warning users to not “defame” others, displaying a reminder and a link to their community guidelines when a first name is detected in a post. Secret also has a general reminder feature which may periodically appear to remind the poster of the rules. Whisper monitors user activity to prevent negative posts. If your “whisper” includes someone’s name, for example, you may be labeled as “untrusted” and will mean you can’t post live. If your post includes thoughts about suicide or self harm, Whisper allows the post to go through, but doesn’t display it publicly. The poster is directed to resources where they can get help.
Due to the high level of abuse, Yik Yak has taken the additional step to block nearly all middle and high school students from even using its service while on school grounds. Yik Yak applied geo-fences around middle schools and high schools using their GPS coordinates. Students could still use the app at home and elsewhere outside of school.
What you choose to do
We are confronted with ethical and moral decisions when we interact with these anonymous messaging apps. We may think this is a perfect excuse to “get away” with negative or harmful speech because it won’t be attributed to our name. Take the high road and use this is an opportunity to demonstrate (and teach your kids) that you have consistent values online and offline. You can still be authentic and express yourself within these anonymous messaging apps, but do it in a way that is respectful, sincere and consistent with your values.
3. Reflect on your values.
Your values are personal and may derive from your experiences, religious tradition, philosophical bent and upbringing. We can also look to other traditions, philosophers and authors for inspiration. For example, according to the Buddhist tradition, we can practice “Right Speech” when we use anonymous messaging apps.
Right Speech means that you:
• Abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive.
• Do not slander others or speak in a way that causes disharmony or enmity.
• Abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language.
• Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.
Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield writes eloquently about the uprightness of heart or virtue (sila) which is an aspect of right speech.
Once you’ve reflected on your values, consider the consequences posting the message will have on yourself and others.
4. How does the message impact you?
Consider the implications of posting (even anonymously or privately) content that may be unethical, illegal, a breach of confidentiality or breach of fiduciary duty. The law is not settled on the potential liability attributable to confidential information posted anonymously on social media and comments sections of news websites.
Take a moment to consider whether it feels appropriate and healthy to share your message in this medium. As we’ve said before, it’s always helpful to pause before you post. Are there other ways to express yourself or this particular message? Would it be possible to share your thoughts with a friend, family member, colleague, parent, coach, or even therapist? Would it be helpful to receive feedback and support for your message in a way the app might not provide? Do you want a deeper, more personal interaction? A limited capacity for others to respond, or for you to trust the responses you receive, may make a face-to-face interaction more productive than social media. For serious issues like addiction and abuse, you may want to share your issues with a professional.
5. Is the message harmful to others?
Expressing yourself freely and taking advantage of anonymous messaging apps is one thing, but using the apps for malicious and hateful purposes is not OK. Make a conscious choice not to use the apps and services in this way. Remember: If you wouldn’t say to my face, don’t say it in cyberspace. Consider how the person or community to whom you are speaking may react to your words. It’s fine to be controversial, debate and share our opinions but we can do so in an open-minded, considerate and respectful way.
Anonymous messaging apps are powerful and they are likely to become an increasing part of our conversation about privacy and social interaction online. Use the suggested approach above to know yourself better and refine your privacy practice.