A new app called Sarahah (which is Arabic for “honesty”) launched its English-language version this summer, promising an anonymous way of offering supportive criticism for teams in the workplace. It has since attracted 300m users and reached the top of Apple’s App Store download charts in more than 30 countries, but already users say they are receiving harassing and obscene messages.
Sarahah’s designers state the app allows users to “get honest feedback from your co-workers and friends” to “help people self-develop by receiving constructive anonymous feedback”. Users sign up for an account and receive a link they can share on other social media sites, inviting anyone with access to their profile to send messages anonymously – users sending messages don’t need accounts. In the Arab world where speech is more culturally policed, it was soon used for declarations of love, homosexuality and much more that would otherwise be forbidden. The 29-year-old Saudi founder, Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, obviously understood the potential for abuse and included blocking and filtering features to prevent misuse. But with only three staff members the company cannot moderate millions of messages a day.
The English version has been widely adopted by the Snapchat generation of under-25s, reaching the top of the download charts only when Snapchat released updates that allowed its users to link to their Sarahah accounts. And while some users find that Sarahah and honesty apps like it deliver self-esteem boosting encouragement, cyberbullying is also rife as people take advantage of the one-way anonymity to safely tell their friends and classmates all the things they wouldn’t dare to say to their faces.
In a review of the app on the Google app store, user Jordan Adams wrote:
It was really cool at first because it was jokes with friends and stuff. Then someone sent my address and I got really freaked out. Then people were sending me a bunch of perverted stuff. I would delete my account but it won’t let me.
Also on Google Play, parents Paul and Olivia Parsons wrote:
Our daughter used it for a day and at first nice comments but slowly more mean comments started coming in … the last one before she deleted it told her to kill herself.
Not the first, nor the last
For researchers like myself, there is a strong sense of Groundhog Day about Sarahah. The first in the long line of semi-anonymous comment apps was Formspring, launched in 2009 and referred to in teenage suicide cases in the US and in Britain. The owner redesigned the site and took part in bullying prevention strategies, but the original concept was cloned by a Latvian team as Ask.fm, and was also linked to several teenage suicides.
Other controversial anonymity apps have included Yik Yak – which closed this year – and After School and Secret. They all offer the same thing: a tantalising opportunity for the user to find out what people “really” think of them, combined with the temptation for the sender to be brutally cruel to someone who has “asked for it”.
In my research of Ask.fm and Formspring, teenage girls were split between those who strongly blamed the bullies for “sending hate” and those who blamed the receiver for signing up to the service in the first place. Some girls said people who complained about bullying on anonymous sites were attention-seeking, shouldn’t be online if they were so sensitive, and shouldn’t “act surprised” that the comments weren’t all positive.
This same victim-blaming is already apparent in Sarahah’s reviews, some of which appear to have been repeatedly cut and pasted while awarding the app five stars. An example:
For all you people complaining that this promotes bullying is totally wrong. It is completely the user’s fault for putting themselves online for anyone to say anything anonymously about them. It’s simple, if you don’t want to get bullied, just don’t use the app. Don’t fish for comments and complain.
This victim-blaming disregards the enormous drive young people have for validation from their peers, which is unfortunately most strong among the more sensitive souls: those who don’t fit in, or who may have already experienced bullying. Rachel Simmons, in Odd Girl Out, her work on teenage girls, described this desire to ascertain social worth as a “toxic, self-reinforcing cycle”. One-way anonymous apps such as Sarahah lure in users with the promise of peer validation much like the promise of water in a desert. But comments can be particularly hurtful, because they come from people who know the users well: they know who you fancy, what you wore to the party, what you said – and they can use it against you.
How to tackle this problem? The cyclical appearance of these apps and their huge popularity shows they are meeting a deep need and won’t be easily eradicated, however regularly they cause problems – or even suicides. But there are some basic safeguards to take: most obviously to hire large numbers of human moderators, to create and monitor a prominent “report abuse” button, and to partner with experts in bullying prevention, something Ask.fm has now done.
However, these are the actions of established companies, not barely-funded start-ups. Perhaps the responsibility really lies with the app stores who host them: Google and Apple. These well-staffed, profitable companies could insist that semi-anonymous messaging services meet basic standards before they appear on the store, rather than simply sticking a “parental guidance” rating on it that most parents will never see. There are plenty of examples of how these apps go wrong. It’s about time they started learning from past mistakes.
Amy Binns does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.