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The Great Anonymous App Debate

The Great Anonymous App Debate Header
Anonymous apps come and go, but their social impact is forever. The latest in a long line of anonymous apps and social media platforms is Islands, which looks like a hybrid of Slack and the now-defunct Yik Yak.
Islands CEO Greg Isenberg is quick to note in his interview with InsideHigherEd that even though the app has anonymous spaces, “most of posts are made non-anonymously,” and it’s easy to understand why. A quick google search reveals hundreds, if not thousands of articles and blog posts detailing the harmful impact anonymous apps can have on students and social groups.
There’s one key part of the discussion that’s missing: why are people so drawn to anonymous apps? Understanding allure of these apps allows us to identify and develop the positive effects that they can have on a community. Before we can talk about that though, it’s important to get familiar with the anonymous apps that are out there.

The House That Yik Yak Built

Yik Yak wasn’t the first anonymous app on the market, but it was definitely one of the first anonymous apps to take over college campuses. Representatives from the company even came to campuses, armed with socks, hats, and other Yik Yak branded items that users could “buy” if they had enough Yakarma (the app’s version of upvotes).
The premise of the app was simple: users could anonymously post messages that could only be viewed within a certain radius. At the height of its popularity, Yik Yak was the #3 app in the US iOS charts and had more than two million users.
Yik Yak Interface
Unfortunately for Yik Yak, posts featuring threats and racist, sexist, aggressive or threatening language quickly drew negative press attention. High schools reported instances of cyberbullying, which in turn led to Yik Yak creating geo-fences and filters intended to prevent the posting of inflammatory yaks.
After a series of lawsuits and articles citing Yik Yak as a platform for harassment, the company went on the offensive. In 2016, Yik Yak implemented profiles and handles that were optional, then required, then made optional again after user backlash. Yik Yak couldn’t prevent the issues associated with user anonymity without alienating its users, and the company shuttered the app in April 2017.Secret App Logo
Yik Yak isn’t the only anonymous app to fail. Secret, an app where users anonymously shared (you guessed it) secrets with both the public AND their personal circle. Secret launched in 2014, just one year after Yik Yak, and shut down just one year later. What drew people to these two apps turned out to be a major reason to ditch them. Anonymity allowed users to post anything without credit, reducing the reward of engaging positively in the communities and emboldening rude or threatening posts.

The New Anonymous Apps on the Block

In Yik Yak and Secret’s absence, new anonymous apps quickly filled the void. NY Mag has a very comprehensive guide to the anonymous apps that are out there (even if they don’t have widespread popularity), but it’s a little outdated. Here’s a list of a few of the anonymous apps making headlines right now:

  1. Sarahah: Released in June 2017, this anonymous feedback app quickly reached the top of the iTunes charts. Sarahah users send each other “constructive feedback” and profiles can be found through the app’s search feature or through user specific web links. Though downloads remain relatively steady, users are already complaining about cyberbullying and harassment. One app store review even called it “a breeding ground for hate”Sarahah Logo
  2. Whisper: The premise is simple: users post “whispers,” which are text on top of an image. Other users can reply to those whispers by writing their own whispers or using the built-in private messaging system. It’s got 250 million monthly users submitting whispers that range from mild to outright scandalous. Though Whisper’s format makes it much more difficult to use as a platform for cyberbullying, the company is not without its troubles. According to a recent Vanity Fair article, the app is struggling with monetization and debts.Whisper App Logo
  3. Fishbowl: The user interface and premise of Fishbowl is incredibly similar to that of Yik Yak’s. The twist? Fishbowl is focused on professionals and industry chatter rather than personal interactions. This app started in the consulting world and quickly capitalized on the buzzy nature of the agency world, debuting its newest industry “bowls” at Cannes. There’s not much negative press surrounding the app, but Google Play reviews note that it’s incredibly difficult to receive an invite and actually participate on the platform.Fishbowl App Icon

Despite the failures of Yik Yak and Secret, these apps are confident that they can learn from their mistakes and reap the benefits of a positively engaged community. Before we can create positive outcomes through anonymous apps, however, we need to understand what motivates people to join in the first place.

The Allure of Anonymity

Online visibility is a hot topic these days, especially after Equifax’s recent data breach. Conversations about how companies are using, sharing, and selling our data are commonplace, and are usually concerned, not excited. People are looking for ways to engage online that don’t reveal who they are for social and privacy reasons.
Pew Research released a report in 2013 about “the quest for anonymity online,” focusing on the security-related reasons digital citizens seek anonymity. Amazingly, 86% of internet users have tried to be anonymous online and taken at least one step to try to mask their behavior or avoid being tracked. Pew even included a breakdown of those activities:
Pew Anonymity Online Graph
One critical thing to note about these activities? Not all of them are private or security related. Deleting/editing previous posts and posting comments without revealing who you are both dealing with communications that are intended to be seen by the world. They deal with what I like to call social visibility concerns.
Anonymous social media apps are one of many direct answers to these social visibility concerns. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Snapchat, your name is attached to everything you put out there. Each and every post is subject to judgment and interpretation, which forces people to be careful about what they post. This quote from Tim Wu sums it up nicely:

“If Facebook is like a never-ending high school reunion, and Twitter serves up water-cooler chatter, the anonymous spaces promise some mixture of drunken party talk, group therapy and the confession booth, absent the hangovers, scheduled meetings and Hail Marys.”

The Many Shades of Anonymity: Characterizing Anonymous Social Media Content is a study conducted by Denzil Correa, Leandro Araújo Silvaz, Mainack Mondaly, Fabrício Benevenutoz, and Krishna P. Gummadiy that directly addresses why and how people use anonymous apps. The research team sought to break down the differences between posts on Whisper and posts on non-anonymized platforms like Twitter.
Correa et al found that users don’t just turn more aggressive and exhibit negative disinhibition in an anonymous environment. Instead, they use those anonymous spaces “to express their wants, needs, and wishes,” especially if they don’t feel comfortable sharing them on public platforms. They also found that users were more likely to share negative emotions or reactions on Whisper than on Twitter.
Concerned Girl Holding Tablet
People turn to these anonymous apps because they’re seeking honesty and authenticity, something we don’t always get on other social media platforms. Sure, there are some people who want to be anonymous so they can troll without social consequences. Assuming that’s the only reason people are drawn to anonymous apps, however, blinds us to the benefits that anonymous spaces can provide.

The Good, the Bad, and the Anonymous

It’s easy to get stuck on all of the negatives that anonymous apps can bring to campuses, it’s true. However, understanding the benefits of anonymity can help us create more intentional online interactions and communities.
Take Konner Sauve. Konner created an anonymous Instagram account dedicated to uplifting each and every one of his classmates at East Valley High School. His posts featured a photo (usually from the yearbook) and a kind message about the person that highlighted their skills, talents, and even personalities.

Though Instagram is a public platform, Konner Sauve took on anonymity in order to keep the focus on the good he saw in his classmates, rather than on how “good” he was for manning such a positive account. In his final post on the account, he spoke to his motivations for creating the account:

“It is easy for people to be cruel over social media, so I decided to make an anonymous account on Instagram that would counteract the negativity seen today by posting a picture of each student and a paragraph of what makes them GREAT and how other people should see that too.”

Online disinhibition theories support the idea that it’s easy for people to be cruel on social media, but there’s also research that tells a different side of the story. Researchers Kelly P. Dillon and Brad J. Bushman found that online anonymity actually has a positive impact on bystander intervention. It turns out that it’s easier to stand up for others when there’s little to no fear of retribution.
Group of hands holding phones
Surprisingly, anonymity can even be a useful tool in developing identity. It may sound counterintuitive, but anonymity allows people to explore ideas and communities that they may not yet feel comfortable exploring openly. Reynol Junco specifically touches on this in his book Engaging Students through Social Media: Evidence-Based Practices for Use in Student Affairs. According to Junco, anonymous spaces online allow LGBT youth to seek information and connections without facing the marginalization they may experience in their day-to-day lives.
Dave Maass said it best: online anonymity is not only for trolls and political dissidents. It’s time we start talking about the ways people are using their anonymity for good. Let’s empower people using anonymous apps to make a positive change in their online and in-person communities.
Where do you stand on this debate? Let me know in the comments.


Correa, D., Silva, L. A., Mondal, M., Benevenuto, F., & Gummadi, K. (2015). The Many Shades of Anonymity: Characterizing Anonymous Social Media Content. In Proceedings of the 9th International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. Palo Alto, CA: AAAI.
Dillon, K. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Unresponsive or un-noticed?: Cyberbystander intervention in an experimental cyberbullying context. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 144-150. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.009
Junco, R. (2014). Engaging students through social media: evidence-based practices for use in student affairs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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