Anonymous messaging app goes viral, raises spectre of bullying
The white envelopes sit against an aquamarine backdrop, inviting anonymous messages that range from declarations of love to criticisms that may not have been possible face to face. They are from a new app called Sarahah, which has become the most downloaded free app on the iOS store in the last two months. In India, 7.2 million people have signed up for its web service though a count of app downloads was not available.
Those sending messages have found a safe outlet. Those receiving them have started posting and sharing screenshots of the anonymous critique or praise on their social media feeds. And the developer, an unassuming 29-year old planning analyst from Saudi Arabia, is still wrapping his head around the rapid rise in the app's popularity.
Here is how it works. You sign up either on the website sarahah.com or download the app from the Apple or Android play store.
You then get a shareable link to your inbox that you can pass around to friends - people have typically been using it on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat, where people can send you direct messages anonymously. The sender knows the identity of the receiver, but the receiver will never know whom the message came from.
The app was launched as a web service in February this year. By June, it was on mobile app stores. Between July 12 and August 11 alone, Sarahah had more than 1.4 billion page views, over 11 million downloads on iOS and 9 million on Android. But opinion is sharply divided; equal numbers of users have rated the app at 1 (lowest) and 5 (highest) on the Google Play Store with several users reporting cyberbullying and trolling.
Zain Al-Abidin Tawfiq, the developer of the app, says it was intended for self-improvement through feedback. The word "Sarahah" is Arabic for honesty or openness. Tawfiq initially piloted the app with the workplace in mind, as a way to get honest feedback from colleagues.
But the app has taken a life of its own. For some, it is a way to express political dissent anonymously. "Become a Hindu, you will look more beautiful," reads a Sarahah message shared on Facebook by Zainab Ahmed from Delhi. A large chunk of the comments for the 27-year-old are religion-based, probably because Ahmed regularly expresses her political views on social media sites. "While some of them have been quite critical, it makes me take a step back and analyse my behaviour. Also, it helped me realise that a lot of people who I thought hated me actually didn't! So, it did help me in letting go of a lot of negativity," she says.
Some are having fun with it. Take the case of Kolkata-based techie-turned-director Amartya Bhattacharyya who shared a post saying: "This is your chance to directly throw your venom at me. I rarely remember appreciations, but whenever someone criticises me, I never forget. So, if you want a place in my heart (or brain), do criticize."
Some are shying away from opening an account fearing trolling and abuse. But the curiosity to unravel the identity of the anonymous through their comments is tempting. "It is addictive. I am aware of the repercussions, but do we just go off social media because we may be trolled there too? We can always control our use, report the sender or even uninstall the app," says Heena Khandelwal, a Delhi-based journalist.
Anonymous messaging has been the flavour of seasons past. Apps like Secret and Whisper were all the rage in 2014. Here users could post anonymous messages to a network. It was the same with the popular "confession pages" on Facebook a few years ago. Here, one could send a message to the group administrator, who would post it without the senders' identity on the page. Other apps like AskFM have the direct message feature that Sarahah does. These were all talked up at the time, but the enthusiasm soon died as people found newer ways to interact online. Is Sarahah destined for a similar fate? "Sarahah has a clear objective - self-development through constructive feedback. I think if we stay focused on that, that will help," says Tawfiq.
Bullying is the one problem that often crops up with anonymous messaging apps. Tawfiq says he is alert to the issue, and is using blocking and filtering mechanisms - but he isn't forthcoming with the details for fear of workarounds.
"Sarahah takes this issue very seriously and we have taken several measures to address this challenge and we will continue to enhance them," he says.
(With inputs from Priyanka Dasgupta)