It’s being said that the preference pendulum in social media culture is swinging back from transparency (as in Facebook) to anonymity (as in Whisper). And the growing popularity of the Whisper app – where users’ posts are Internet meme-style photos overlaid with text (the app makes posting easy by offering up photos it “thinks” match your text, and you get to pick one). People can respond by “heart-ing” (as with a “Like” on Facebook) or commenting on your secret.
Though there may not be a lot of buzz about it among people over 25, it’s “already popular among high-school and college students across the country,” reports New York Magazine, and “is quickly becoming the most interesting social network around.” Its makers won’t publish its user numbers but did tell reporter Kevin Roose that Whisper’s users post secrets at the rate of 20 per second at peak times, and the app gets 3 billion+ pageviews a month – more “than LinkedIn, WordPress, and Upworthy combined.” The demographics are more interesting: 70% of users are female and 90% “between ages 18 and 24,” which Roose suggests is why there’s a lot of “adolescent angst” and a true-confessions element, the darkside of which is “confessions of cheating, cutting, and other subversive behaviors” (though sometimes, when confessions are cries for help, this exposure can actually lead to help). But the reporter says he’s also found plenty of “happy Whispers, idealistic Whispers, angry political Whispers, and Whispers about sports.”
Another downside of anonymity, of course – as on Reddit, Ask.fm and other services built squarely on anonymity (but also with mainly positive or neutral content) – is the potential for anonymous bullying or trolling wherever vulnerability is on display. It’s always a good policy to ask your kids if they or kids at their school use a particular site and, if so, what their experience of it is. If people are using it to be mean, ask if they’ll think about either leaving or helping to make the experience better for themselves and their peers. If they look at you funny, you can state the fact that this is user-driven media, so users have as much of a role in how positive or negative the experience is as the companies that provide it.
Whisper says anonymity allows for more honesty, and that’s true. People can be themselves more, show off less, post what they really feel (positive or negative), rather than what makes them look good for the make-or-break reputation mill that social media had come to mean to a lot of people. Sharing disappearing photos and videos, as in Snapchat, is known to be a response to self-presentation fatigue (see this).
But Roose says “there is still a pressure to perform. Users who want their posts to be popular will be tempted to embellish their own secrets, or appropriate someone else’s.” That’s partly because the app increasingly promotes the most popular posts, so some users work hard to post secrets that’ll go “viral,” sometimes making them up or taking advantage of other people’s creativity.
“There’s no system of social checks to keep fabricators at bay,” Roose adds. He’s talking about social norms – a key element of safety in social media and one that social apps and services who care about users’ safety and community goodwill will work at fostering more and more. If they’re smart, these apps and services will “crowd-source” safety – figure out how to create and maintain a sense of community or belonging for users so that – just as in great neighborhoods in offline life – people don’t just rely on “the cops” but watch out for each other too (see this). This is the shared, participatory safety of social media, which includes a sense of belonging to and stakeholdership in the wellbeing of the community as a whole and every member of it.
- CNET on Whisper: “Secrets & lies: Whisper and the return of the anonymous app”
- What a Snapchat user says about freedom from performance pressure
- What we know about… “The anonymity factor,” a sidebar to this post of mine last spring about a tragic case involving anonymity and digital self-harm
- There’s nothing black and white about it: “How anonymity’s a safety factor: 1 clear example“
- “7 Properties of Online Community Safety,” a post I wrote for the Inversoft blog (Inversoft is a company the makes tech tools for online community providers)
- Written back in 2009 but still true: “How social networks can be protective”