It seems that every few years, a new anonymous-messaging platform enters the market; rapidly garners a fan base, investment and media attention; Then crashes and burns. Typically, this is due to some combination of unbridled bullying, harassment or misinformation emerging within the platform.
And yet, the apps keep coming. One of the latest arrivals is NGL, which invites users to anonymously ask questions and comments from their followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere. NGL, as the app’s website states, “stands for not lying.”
During June and the first half of July, NGL was downloaded approximately 3.2 million times in the United States, according to app analytics firm, Sensor Tower. Sensor Tower said it was the 10th most downloaded app in the Apple and Google Play stores in June.
“Anonymity has always been the secret sauce,” said MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who studies people’s relationships with technology. She said the craving for anonymous self-expression was nothing new, pointing to confessional booths in some churches, for example.
But, he said, the desire for anonymity has never been about anonymity. After all, in many cases, the promise of anonymity is false, or at best – the priest often knows who the confessor is, and apps that collect and distribute secrets are simultaneously collecting their users’ private data. In fact, NGL, which was launched in November, goes even further, providing users with hints about their respondents for $9.99 per week.
“Anonymity is a way of opening the door to a sense of space and permission, to a marginal space between areas where you can express some truth or speak some truth that you cannot for the rest of your life. are,” said Professor Turkle, author of “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir”.
Harold David, 34, administrator of a fitness company in New York, recently tried out the NGL. “It’s fun to see what people will say when they go anonymous,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to know someone’s secret thoughts on them?”
He said he has seen some friends use the app and expects “more nonsense or more lewd” comments. But, he added, “it was really a hot flurry of reactions about people’s experiences with me, so it was a really nice surprise.”
The experience of 26-year-old Hares Shirley, a school resource officer in Indianapolis, was not as positive. Mr Shirley received nearly a dozen responses after posting a link to NGL on Facebook and Instagram.
“I thought there would be more questions about my transition, and I would be able to give some insight into how to properly ask those questions,” he said. Instead, he said, most of the questions were shallow, asking what his favorite color was or what was the last thing he ate.
He understands the appeal of the app. “These apps give you the idea that people are interested in you and want to know more about you,” he said. But it’s not for him. “It’s really geared towards kids in middle and high school,” he said.
As soon as the app grew, it has also been criticized.
Anonymous-messaging platforms such as ASKfm, Yik Yak, Yolo and LMK have long struggled to stop bullying, harassment and threats of violence. Messages on Yik Yak prompted many schools to evacuate students in response to threats of bombs and shootings. YOLO and LMK, the anonymous-messaging app, are being sued by the mother of a teenager who committed suicide (the apps were integrated into Snapchat, whose parent company, Snap, was initially a defendant in the lawsuit, but no longer Is).
Incognito, yet another anonymous-messaging app, shut down in 2015 despite investments from major Silicon Valley players. In a Medium post announcing the company’s closure, one of its founders, David Byto, wrote that anonymity is the “ultimate double-edged sword”.
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, said people on the Internet believe that the opinions of certain people represent a large subsegment of the population.
“Anonymity,” he said, “makes it worse.” The result is that if someone leaves an anonymous comment saying that your haircut is ugly, for example, you end up thinking that everyone else thinks your haircut is ugly.
NGL’s website says its community guidelines are “coming soon” and the app uses “world-class AI content moderation.” This takes users to the website of Hive Moderation, a company that uses software to filter text, images, and audio based on categories such as bullying and violence. NGL did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
“You don’t have to use trigger words to be unkind,” explained Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center.
“If someone starts using racial slurs or whatever else they can overtake the AI, you can block them,” Dr. Routledge said. “But it’s hard to draw boundaries around comments that undermine the way you think about yourself.”
When Reggie Baril, 28, a Los Angeles-based musician, posted an NGL link to his 12,000 followers on Instagram, he expected questions about his career. “I was very wrong,” he said. Of the 130 responses they received, it was “more hate than hate”.
He read aloud some of the comments during a phone interview. “You can be so successful but your attitude is terrible, you just won’t make it,” he said. “I’m not sure 2015 Reggae will like 2022 Reggae.” Another called him “a social climber”.
He was surprised by the acidity. “I’m not a bit of a confrontational person,” he said. “I like to make jokes, to be goofy and silly.” He decided not to take the comments personally. “I read a lot of insecurities in the subtext,” he said.
In online reviews, NGL users have said that the app provides them with fake questions and comments, a phenomenon that technology-focused publications including TechCrunch say they have replicated with their own tests. It is unclear whether these reactions were generated by the app or by bots.
Johnny G. Lloyd, 32, a playwright who lives in New York, downloaded NGL as a way to increase engagement on his Instagram ahead of the premiere of his new play. Three times he used it, he noticed some strange presentations.
“I had a question that was like, ‘Which girl did you text recently?'” he said. “It doesn’t matter at all in my life. He’s barking up the wrong tree.” Another message was more cryptic. “It said ‘You know what you did,'” Mr. Lloyd said. “It was clearly for a younger audience.”
When Clayton Wong, 29, an editorial assistant in Los Angeles, tried out NGL, he got an unexpected “confession” that asked him to find a specific love song online. Mr. Wong was immediately suspicious. “I didn’t think the song was great,” he said. “If this person had known me, they would have known that this is not something I would have been involved in.”
After scrolling through comments on the song on YouTube, he realized that dozens of people had received an anonymous “confession” of sentiments that directed him to the same video.
Johan Lennox, a musician friend of Mr Barils, expected a “chaotic” NGL experience, but the opposite happened. He wondered how people wanted to protect their identity when asking questions like what it was like to be a musician or what it was like to be a musician. This got him thinking about the point of the app.
“If you want to talk to someone, how are you going to accomplish that by sending an anonymous note?” They said. He thinks NGL will meet the fate of other apps that disappeared as soon as they appeared. “No one will talk about it again in a month,” he said.
Ellen Delaquerry Contributed to research.