The shady history of anonymous Q&A apps

As Instagram Stories floods with 'ask me anythings', we look back at the bullying and death threats that have plagued these apps historic

by Daisy Schofield
22 July 2022, 10:18am

When Emma, now 31, thinks back to her time at school, she’s immediately filled with dread. Memories of the messages she received via the anonymous Q&A platform Formspring flood back. Among them: “You’re so dramatic”, “Eat a burger” (Emma says she was “very skinny at the time”) and “Just kill yourself already”. 

Emma blames the messages she received on Formspring for the depression and anxiety she struggled with in school and in the years after. “It definitely ruined my self-esteem and confidence,” she says. “I graduated 13 years ago, but it’s had a lasting impact.” She never found out who sent the messages, which left her paranoid and questioning her friendships.

After a string of suicides among its users, Formspring closed down in 2013. Similar apps — like Ask.Fm, Yik Yak and Curious Cat — imploded in a similar fashion after rampant bullying, lawsuits and bans from app stores. The abuse and harassment people faced growing up on anonymous question sites was once so widespread that it has now become a popular meme on TikTok: “Think you can hurt me?”, it typically goes, “I had a Formspring in high school”.  

Now, it seems that history is repeating itself once again. A new spate of anonymous messaging apps has emerged, among them Sendit, YOLO, LMK and the rebirth of Yik Yak (which shut down due to its hate speech problem but has since returned). There’s also NGL, which has swamped Instagram Stories over the last few weeks, to the extent IG briefly blocked links to the app. It has been installed 15 million times globally, according to recent reports. The app is already generating controversy, with users claiming that some of the messages they’ve received are from bots and not their friends. 

What’s driving this sudden resurgence? In The Atlantic, Kaityln Tiffany posits that the popularity of “smaller internet spaces” and “secret sharing apps” stems from a broader turn towards anonymity. “The most online generation is frustrated with being surveilled and embarrassed by attention-seeking behaviours,” she writes. “In the end, a return to anonymity is just a return to form. Hiding your identity has always been important for getting through the horror of being a person under the age of 24 on the internet.” While anonymity can facilitate abuse, it can also provide a space for self-expression and authentic encounters. This is backed up by research which has shown online anonymity enhances self-disclosure and honesty.

Ryan Broderick, who writes the newsletter Garbage Day, makes a similar point about the shift away from the personal brand. “Social media apps that emphasise local networks and anonymous communication were not really embraced by millennials, who crave being public on the internet,” he says. “So, a lot of the apps that didn't get enough attention at the tail-end of that generation are going to try to come back — Yik Yak is a great example.” Yik Yak allows you to create discussion threads with people within a five-mile radius of your location.

But there is another, simpler explanation, behind the recent surge in popularity of these apps. “There’s no cultural memory on the internet,” Ryan says. “A lot of the [previous] horror stories, the bad use cases, the messiness, is just not part of the ethos for a lot of young people.” He points out that generations cycle through the same trends: “This new generation is not only having nostalgia for music, art and fashion, but they're also having nostalgia for the way they use the internet.”

This nostalgia may explain why some people are turning to these apps once again. Kayla, a 16-year-old from the UK, says that while she received some nice comments, she also faced death threats and messages calling her “ugly” on the anonymous Q&A platform Tellonym — an app encourages users to send “anonymous and honest feedback from everyone who is important to you” — at the age of 12. Despite this, she recently downloaded NGL, describing the appeal of these apps as the “factor of the unknown” and “the chance to know what people really think about you”. It’s an urge which has endured, even among those who’ve already experienced just how brutal these platforms can be. When asked whether she was worried about receiving nasty messages on NGL, Kayla says: “I’m a lot thicker skinned now compared to when I was younger.”

But while Kayla says she is yet to receive any “inappropriate” messages on NGL, these newer apps are undoubtedly following a similar trajectory to the ones that came before it. In March this year, Snapchat banned anonymous messaging from third-party apps that integrate with its platform after being sued multiple times by families whose teens died by suicide after being bullied via LMK and YOLO. And, even though NGL’s website claims it uses algorithms “to filter out harmful language and bullying”, an NBC News investigation tested the app and found that some phrases still made it through. 

The problem with banning anonymous Q&A platforms every time public outrage erupts is that it creates a whack-a-mole situation, where more will simply keep springing up in their place. And besides, as Ryan Broderick says, “Banning anonymous Q&A apps doesn’t really make sense – it’s essentially just an inbox.” A solution that has been widely touted is an end to online anonymity entirely. The racist abuse of England’s football players saw renewed calls for banning online anonymity, with some people arguing that it should be included in the government’s proposed — and now delayed — Online Safety Bill

But, as Ryan points out, banning online anonymity could have devastating consequences. “Anonymity is really crucial for political speech,” he says. “It's crucial for expressing your identity, and it's particularly useful for people from marginalised backgrounds who want to be able to express themselves safely. Particularly in America right now, to remove anonymity puts a lot of young people who are LGBTQ at risk, especially.” Part of the problem comes down to “friction”, or the ease with which these platforms can be accessed, he explains. Indeed, the migration of anonymous Q&A apps to platforms like Instagram and Snapchat has made them even harder to opt-out of. 

David Babbs, a campaigner with Clean Up the Internet, agrees that banning online anonymity is not the answer, but says that tougher regulation needs to be put in place. “If you’re designing a product — whether it's an app or a toaster — you have to take a degree of responsibility for public safety,” he says. “Anonymous communication is a risk factor. Any platform that's doing that should be able to answer the question: how are you managing those risks to minimise harm? And the bar needs to be set a lot higher for younger and more vulnerable users.” David says that on any platform, users should have the right to verify their identity, and people should have the option of filtering out unverified and anonymous accounts. It's about, as Ryan suggests, “giving the user that is at risk the tools to defend themselves,” whether that’s “IP banning or hate speech filters or reporting tools.”

As it currently stands, there’s no independent assessment of the safety features touted by anonymous platforms, such as NGL’s language filter or Yik Yak’s zero tolerance “one strike and you’re out” policy for bullying and threats. As David puts it, “If you leave it to the companies to test their own product safety, there are incentives to cut corners or to overhype it.” The Online Safety Bill could subject these platforms to higher safety standards, such as age verification, which David says is a “very likely” feature of the bill. But there are serious concerns over how effective it will be, and whether mandating age verification will simply lead us on a slippery slope to more online surveillance and censorship

For all its risks, online anonymity can offer a vital outlet and means of self-expression, for minorities in particular. But if anonymous platforms continue to put profit before the wellbeing of users, then we can expect the same deadly consequences to occur time and time again.

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