Sarahah: From a force of social change to feeding narcissism and cyber-bullying

The anonymous social media app is the latest evidence of how a good thing can turn horribly bad

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Today, we live in a time where our lives consist of two components; the real and the digital components. The two are so tightly intertwined that they’re often seen spilling their influence all over the other. Compliments in the digital realm make us often feel better about ourselves and uncomfortable situations are often vented out into our digital lives through social media status updates. Now, we’ve got a new app that is dangerously blurring the lines called Sarahah, that encourages people to send anonymous messages to the user. The messages posted through the app reach the user as completely anonymous and cannot be traced back to the original author. While a great way to confess your feelings for someone or even share an embarrassing confession or two, apps of this kind have shown to also sometimes bring out the worst in us. Secret was an app that was designed to do practically the same thing but was eventually pulled due to its excessive use in cyber bullying. So what makes Sarahah any different?

Who Made Sarahah and Why?
The app was Created by Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq and is built on the premise that if your identity is anonymized, you are more likely to speak the truth. Originally made to allow for employees of a company to share honest (and anonymous) feedback with their bosses at the workplace in Saudi Arabia, Sarahah originally began as a website back in November of 2016. While the website was slow to pick up an audience, Tawfiq shared the website with an influential friend, thanks to whom, it gained over a thousand users within a span of days. The website soon started spreading to other Arab nations and it was once it reached Egypt that the popularity of the anonymous messaging social network really blew up. Arab nations do have a proclivity for censoring dissenting speech, so it is no surprise that when the voices of the suppressed found a means to speak (without fear of persecution), the popularity of Sarahah only grew with each passing day.

The Evolution of an App
We’ve seen apps evolve in their usage over a period of time. Snapchat, which began as an app for guilt-free sharing of private moments due to its ephemeral nature, quickly evolved into the preferred choice of messaging app for youngsters all around the globe. Similarly, once Sarahah broke out of the Arab world and into the western countries, it soon picked up fervour amongst the social media aficionados who were sharing links to their Sarahah profiles on various other social media outlets. What started as an app to help dissenting voices be heard, soon became another medium for people to seek validation from people known and unknown. Instagram and Snapchat had rolled out updates to include Sarahah profile links within Stories and Snaps further boosting the popularity of the anonymous app. Since its introduction into the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, the Sarahah app has managed to bag the number 1 spot on the respective stores across the US, Australia and Britain, according to data provided by Prioridata, a service that measures all relevant metrics for an app across platforms.

sarahah, secret, app, anonymous app
Sarahah’s popularity has exploded in the west

Welcome to the Dark Side
It started with harmless admittances of old crushes or feelings relevant even today. However, as days have passed, the user experience of using Sarahah has been growing increasingly unpleasant. There are a growing number of users sharing the grossly inappropriate or just downright derogatory messages being sent to users.

With Sarahah’s explosive popularity, there are two critical components of behaviour worth examining; people’s persistent need for feedback (arguably for self-affirmation) and the loss of inhibition while posting anonymously. The former behaviour is consistently visible across many social media habits, such as gauging one’s popularity or the impact on self-esteem based on the number of likes/reactions received by a particular post. The latter is behaviour that was corroborated in research as far back as 1998, where a study measuring the relationship between Social desirability, anonymity, and Internet-based questionnaires revealed that people have the least amount of inhibitions when they are posting online and anonymously. People tend to be most mindful when answer questions on paper under the condition of no anonymity. While the study is now close to two decades old, its findings have continued to withstand the test of time, not only through research but also through an actual manifestation of human behaviour.

What started out as an attempt to have an honest channel of communication for those who fear persecution due to free speech, is quickly devolving into a medium for feeding our narcissism and propagation of a derogatory discourse that flirts the line between cyber-bullying, gross perversion and in some cases, even hateful.

Who Bears Responsibility?
For some reason, despite what we saw with apps like Whisper, Secret and even ask.fm we still refuse to accept that anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people. While Ask.fm does still allow anonymous questions, it does allow users to disable the feature, providing for some semblance of a filter. This did not exist with Whisper, Secret and other anonymous messaging apps, which eventually led to their downfall. Sarahah has its origins in a story of social good, but other than that, shares a lot of its DNA with its predecessors, and hence, an uphill battle. While Apple’s App Store has given the app an age rating of 17+ in India, it enjoys a relatively relaxed 12+ age rating on Google’s Play Store. It is fair to expect app developers to put safeguards against abuse in place within their apps, Anonymous social networks are a trickier pony to deal with. Do app developers ban anonymous posts, inherently going against what their app stands for or do they delete hate-speech from their end, sparking a censorship/free-speech debate. App developers could take responsibility and limit the outreach of their apps. Instead of going for big download numbers and outright supporting the flagrant misuse of their apps, Tawfiq could have just as well chosen to limit the app’s availability to corporates where this kind of a system could have helped management understand the plight of employees. App developers taking responsibility for their apps is not unprecedented. Dong Nguyen, the creator of Flappy Bird admitted in an interview with Forbes that he shut the game down because “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed, but it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.” 

Unless Tawfiq decides to do something about the nature of Sarahah and its ability to provide a safe haven for trolling and hate-speech, the app will eventually come under serious fire from advocacy groups just like Secret, prompting it to be shut down. Given that the app has a lot of scope for social good, we hope that both the developer and the user can take advantage of that and put the app to use where it is most required and not turn it into means of further feeding the the cyber bully or lowering peoples’self esteem.