Who needs friends when you have anonymous feedback apps

Aug 10, 2017, 11:00 PM

The current number one app in the iOS App Store has a curious name. It's called Sarahah, and it's been at the top of the Free Apps chart on iTunes for the past few weeks. The premise behind the app is that it's an anonymous messaging service geared specifically for personal feedback. Anyone -- whether they're on the service or not -- can leave comments for users without revealing who they are.

If you think that sounds like a recipe for abuse, well, you're not alone. With such rapid growth -- it now has 300 million users -- Sarahah has raised concerns among parents and educators that it'll be a haven for online bullying, especially since it's such a hit with teenagers and young adults. But perhaps a larger question is why these anonymous apps have such appeal in the first place, and what is it that apps like Sarahah can do to keep the trolls away.

Sarahah is the brainchild of Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, a systems analyst who originally created it as a way for employees to give feedback to their employers without fear of retribution. Tawfiq, who's from Saudi Arabia, says the name "Sarahah" is Arabic for "honesty." "Having anonymous feedback would facilitate communications and help people develop, so that the company can improve," he told Engadget.

It was released to the public in November 2016 as a simple website, and gained a lot of traction in countries like Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt in just a few months. In June of 2017, Tawfiq released the app version of Sarahah on both iOS and Android, which also marked the first time it was available in English.

Through word-of-mouth, teenagers in English-speaking countries like Canada, the US and Australia started to pick it up -- some even posting links to their Sarahah profiles on Instagram to attract feedback. What really skyrocketed Sarahah to the top though, was when Snapchat updated its app in July that allowed the addition of links to images. Teens linked to their Sarahah profiles in their Snaps, and voila, a viral hit was born.

Christine Garcia, an Associate and Clinical Director at the Young Adult and Family Center (YAFC) at University of California, San Francisco's Department of Psychiatry, offers some insight into why anonymous apps like these are so enticing to teenagers. "Adolescence and young adulthood is a time when individuals are concerned about their outward facing appearance to peer groups," she said. "This is a developmental norm as they attempt to understand and step into their various identity group memberships."

"Anonymity is appealing for a wide-range of reasons including providing a certain sense of safety," said Garcia about the appeal of such apps. "[They] provide a level of privacy that may not be present in other social media networks such as Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, etc. Teens want to connect [...] but anonymous apps allow them to be connected and somewhat disconnected (because no one knows who they are) at the same time."

As mentioned however, Sarahah has already come under fire for encouraging bullying. Early reviews of the app accused it of being "unsafe" and that it was a "breeding ground for hate." One App Store review accused it as "another way for people to talk behind your back," and another said that "What some people said to me brought me to tears." A Google Play Store review said that a friend attempted suicide due to what was said to her on the app, and called for it to be shut down.

At the same time, the app has also received a lot of positive reviews. One user took the diplomatic approach and said "the app is not for the weak-hearted" and another simply warned that you should know what you're getting into when you download it. Others appear to be a lot more aggressive, accusing negative reviewers as "a bunch of crybabies" and advised them to "grow a spine."

Sarahah is certainly not the first anonymous messaging app to be used to bully. Secret, Whisper, AskFM, Kik and YikYak have all been used for online harassment in some form or oth...