A new anti-social app: Making room for bullies?

As smartphone application Secret tests location-based anonymous sharing, tech pundits wonder if the feature opens the door to self-harm and bullying, with little room for recourse.

By , Guest blogger

It’s unusual to see a tech reporter anticipating Internet safety problems with a new social app feature. So I was impressed with a post by TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez about Secret’s forthcoming addition of “Secret Dens” for anonymous sharing in specific locations (like schools, companies and other organizations). 

Launched early this year, Secret is an app for sharing thoughts, “secrets,” etc. (somewhat) anonymously with friends, friends’ friends or publicly (I say “somewhat” because the smaller the circle of sharing, the more easily recipients can guess who’s sharing, right?). With the Android version launched last month, users could also see anonymous messages shared nearby and not in their social networks (using geolocation). With the “Secret Dens” feature its developers are testing now, all this gets more clubby in an oddly sort of anonymous way.

Dens of anonymity?

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“Any posts made in the Den are visible only to other Den members,” according to PCMag.com. “As with the anonymous mainstream Secret app, members of a Den aren’t given the identities of other Den members but they do get a notification when somebody joins – just not the new member’s name.” And, PCMag.com adds, “any member of a Den has the right to remove anybody else from the domain.”

Sure, this could be fun. But we know that when people are truly digitally anonymous, some percentage of their comments will be caustic, cruel, or uncivil. Any organization using Secret will want to be alert to the anti-social potential, (e.g., marginalization or promotion of self-harm situations) I just can’t help but wonder if it entered the legal or marketing minds at Secret how anonymous “Secret Dens” would play with parents. Are there no parents at this startup?

“This is an interesting move for Secret,” Perez reports, “as its two top competitors [Yik Yak and Whisper] have shown to place a priority on moderation and reporting features in order to combat bullying as well as potentially ‘triggering’ messages that could provoke some users to engage in self-harm.”

To that end, Yik Yak, one of the better known “anti-social” networks used by teens, has made strides to geo-fence off middle and high schools, in an effort to curb location-based bullying via its app.

Users need help sometimes

As for Whisper, besides heavily moderating posts (reportedly), it “points some more afflicted users to its related non-profit arm, YourVoice,” Perez reports. Although “nonprofit arm” may be overstating it a bit (it’s a website), it is commendable that Whisper pulled together a diverse set of resources it could send troubled users to and not leave them high and dry. 

Your-Voice.org links to articles, campus resources, support organizations and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

I was glad to see links to the Lifeline and Reachout.com (the youth peer-to-peer support site) in there. But I was surprised not to find listed the Trevor Project’s hotline for LGBTQ youth, the LoveIsRespect.org hotline for dating abuse in the Relationships category, or the 24/7 Crisis Text Line for teens – maybe I missed something?

Pro-social media companies

“Secret, on the other hand, has struggled with bullying in its early days, allowing public figures in the tech industry (not necessarily 'famous' people on worldwide scale) to be ruthlessly mocked for hours or days before the offending comments were removed, if they even were,” wrote Perez in her TechCrunch piece.

I agree with her that Secret may not really be ready to let “Secret Dens” out in the wild (the feature is still in beta) – not until it simultaneously introduces proactive community moderation and a responsive abuse reporting system. 

Does it really want to become an anti-social media company? I believe that, in this very social media environment, there can’t ultimately be much place or success for anti-social media companies. As the social norms of this media environment solidify, investors and users will increasingly demand pro-social business practices, and social media startups that allow for social marginalization and other anti-social behavior will increasingly be marginalizing themselves. 

Social norms develop in every social environment, including in media environments, and they are protective – they’re the part of “Internet safety” we’ve barely begun to talk about.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews, and you can find this original post with relevant related links here.

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