Identity

From Formspring to Sarahah: Exploring Our Obsession with Online Anonymity

Sarahah may be the latest anonymous app to gain popularity, but it's nowhere near the first. Social media platforms that allow users to hide their identities have been around for over a decade now, despite the inevitable bullying they facilitate.
August 24, 2017, 7:32pm
Image by Good Vibrations Images via Stocksy

For a brief period during high school, my friends and I would say our goodbyes after the bell rang and rush home to log on to Formspring, the Q-and-A based social media site that launched in 2009. (Most of us had yet to acquire smart phones.) The feature which led to our addiction to the site was a box which, once checked, allowed users to send questions anonymously.

For a while, what transpired on Formspring dominated the following day's classroom gossip. Everyone's crushes, hookups, and mistakes became common knowledge open for discussion in the hallways. You no longer wondered why Anna was bawling her eyes out during second period— after what they said about her on Formspring, how could she not?

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We quickly learned that anonymity emboldened people to share their more malicious opinions shamelessly. But with the platform's soul-crushing bullying also came the occasional compliment. And in our search for these rare affirmations, we were willing to withstand some pretty awful words—for a while at least.

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Eventually, people forgot about Formspring, but the allure of the anonymous social media platform never really died. Formspring was predated by Honesty Box and followed by Ask.fm, YikYak, and more. While none of these apps seemed to stand the test of time, the creation of new ones has not stopped. Late last year, a new anonymous app called Sarahah (honesty or candor in Arabic) launched, quickly garnering millions of users across the Middle East and North Africa.

Sarahah allows users to receive anonymous messages from both contacts in their phone and complete strangers, but does not yet allow them to reply to these messages.

Dr. Justin W. Patchin, Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center who recently wrote a blog post about Sarahah, believes that the app is simply this generation's Formspring. "[We] were around for the Formspring revolution and the current generation wasn't," he says. "It seems like every couple years we have a new app that really isn't all that new."

Though it didn't hit the App Store until June, Sarahah quickly surpassed both Facebook and Snapchat on the top charts for free apps. As its user base grew, developers were surprised that it was notably popular among teens. "People started to put it on their Snapchat stories, like 'I'm bored ask me questions,' then they would link the Sarahah," says Nadia, a high schooler in Colorado who has never heard of Formspring. She believes that her friends use the app "because no one says what they really think out loud in high school."

No one says what they really think out loud in high school

"As adolescents, we want to know what other people are thinking," Dr. Patchin tells Broadly. "[But], we don't understand how the negative comments are going to affect us."

Sarahah's creator, Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, however, originally intended for the app to be used as a way to give and receive honest feedback in work environments. As people have found more personal uses for Sarahah, the site's website has added a section on how to use it among friends. "Improve your friendship by discovering your strengths and areas for improvement," it reads. "Let your friends be honest with you."

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Though Sarahah insists that the anonymity they provide allows friends and coworkers to share their most honest thoughts, Dr. Patchin says it's important to question whether or not anonymity truly leads to honesty. "It's hard to know if people are being honest in these anonymous environments or saying things that are completely off the wall and ridiculous to try to get a reaction," he says.

Since its launch, Sarahah has received a wave of criticism from those who believe that the app facilitates bullying. "This App [sic] isn't for the weak hearted," wrote one user in a review on the App Store. "5 stars for the perfect bullying app," wrote another.

Amidst these reviews, Sarahah's developers have maintained that the only criticism on their app should be constructive, but finding a way to manage harsher comments has proved tough in keeping with their promise of complete anonymity. Developers are aware of the issue, and continuing to upgrade the app. Whether upgrades will involve protections from potential bullying remains to be seen.

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Dr. Patchin believes that anonymous apps have a "moral obligation" to provide its users with protections from abuse, though he adds that the current commotion surrounding bullying on Sarahah comes from fear rather than tangible examples of harm through the app's use.

For many users, however, anonymous apps like Sarahah provide a positive space with a level of freedom that doesn't exist face-to-face. "There is a subset of teens who use anonymous environments to explore issues that they don't feel comfortable exploring in real world situations," says Dr. Patchin. "Maybe they're exploring gender or sexual orientation or have questions that every teen has and is just looking for a place to ask and get them answered."

Yesenia, a Sarahah user who's been on the app for a few weeks now, has had an overwhelmingly positive experience with the new social media."I love that my inbox is filled with all these sweet compliments," she says. With the exception of one negative message she received, "everyone has been really positive and delightful." Still, she understands how people can abuse the app. "People can be depraved and cruel under the cover of anonymity," she says.

Despite the buzz that anonymous social platforms tend to receive when they first hit the market, few have been able to stick around or maintain growth. Yik Yak, a once popular app for anonymous discussion threads, just closed its doors this past April. Dr. Patchin believes that Sarahah is headed for the same fate soon. If history is any indicator of the future, another anonymous platform will be the following generation's Sarahah.