Teens, masochists, and curious minds may have contributed to anonymous personality feedback app Sarahah‘s impressive growth. But after amassing over 1 billion page views and 300 million users since launching in February, “the honesty app” has taken mainstream social feeds by storm.
The app’s stated intentions to “improve your friendship by discovering your strengths and areas for improvement,” are laughably naive. Anyone with your Sarahah profile link is allowed to fill a textbox with observations, critiques, and questions about, well, you. On the internet, anonymously. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, subjecting ourselves to nameless commenters via technology is not new, and we’ve seen this scenario play out dozens of times in the last 15 years. An app or site emerges, innocently hoping that in anonymity we’ll be free to gush compliments to each other. Instead, humans are awful, hate speech and cyberbullying is unleashed, and bad things happen.
I’ve personally watched Formspring.me, YikYak, Lulu (which allowed women to create performance reviews for men), and recently, Curious Cat, wreak havoc on various communities in my life. Bullying, campus hate crimes, and criminal investigations eventually caused Formspring, YikYak, and Lulu to shutter or change user policies.
Sarahah’s closest comparison, Ask.fm, was best known for being a global forum for abuse and harassment. Between 2012 and 2013, people blamed Ask.fm for a spate of teen suicides and an ISIS recruitment scandal was linked to the feedback app’s use, prompting international headlines and calls for regulation by concerned parents.
Saudi Arabian developer, Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq initially created Sarahah as a way for employees to offer their bosses feedback without fear of retribution. But it wasn’t until Tawfiq expanded usership to the general public and subsequently to Snapchat users, that it became a viral sensation. Unlike its predecessors, Sarahah allows users to block messages from nonregistered users and doesn’t publicly post responses without your permission. And in several interviews, Tawfiq has emphasized wanting to “create a positive environment.” A new feature promises to let you “choose your audience” and block people.
Still, Sarahah has already found itself unable to contain the drama. App Store reviews clock in at two stars, with comments like, “This is a breeding ground for hate,” and “My son signed up for an account and within 24 hrs someone posted a horrible racist comment on his page including saying that he should be lynched.” Scare-headlines like, “7 Things to Know About the Latest Bullying App,” aren’t helping the app’s public perception. Meanwhile, Sarahah had to address a hoax that commenter identities would be exposed on August 1. It never came to fruition.
Wanting to know what others think of us is a basic human desire that’s not going away anytime soon. Once Sarahah goes the way of its fallen relatives, a new way to stoke social anxiety and pit friend groups against each other will materialize, spam our feeds and disappear before you can say “burn book.”
While this mediocre episode of Black Mirror we’re in feels like a rerun, brace yourselves and try to stay above the fray. Because if Sarahah isn’t your preferred form of self-trolling, you can always check your Uber rating, investigate your Tinder Elo score, or simply post a late night thirst trap and hope for likes.