It seems that a new platform for anonymous messaging is entering the market every few years; quickly gaining a fan base, investment and media attention; then crashes and burns. Usually the cause is a combination of unrestrained bullying, harassment or misinformation that flourishes on the platform.
And yet the apps keep coming. One of the latest arrivals is NGL, which invites users to ask anonymous questions and comments from their followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere. NGL, the app’s website explains, “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 Sensor Tower, an app analysis company. It was the 10th most downloaded app in Apple and Google Play stores in June, Sensor Tower said.
“Anonymity has always been the secret sauce,” said Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies people’s relationship to technology. She said that the desire for anonymous self-expression was nothing new, and pointed to the confessional in some churches as an example.
But, she added, the desire for anonymity has never been about anonymity itself. After all, in many cases the promise of anonymity is false, or at best qualified – the pastor often knows who the confessor is, and apps that collect and distribute secrets also collect users’ private data. In fact, NGL, which was launched in November, goes even further and offers users hints about respondents for $ 9.99 per week.
“Anonymity is a way to open the door to a sense of space and permission, to a liminal space between realms where you can express something true or speak something true that you do not know for the rest of your life,” said Professor Turkle. the author of “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir”.
Harold David, 34, an administrator for a training company in New York, recently tried out NGL. “It’s fun to see what people want to say when it’s anonymous,” he said. “Who does not want to know someone’s secret thoughts about them?”
He said he had seen a few friends use the app and expected “more rude or more lewd” comments. But, he said, “there was actually a warm flood of responses about people’s experiences with me, so that was a very pleasant surprise.”
The experience of Haras Shirley (26), a resource officer at the school in Indianpolis, was not as positive. Mr. Shirley received about a dozen responses after posting a link to NGL on Facebook and Instagram.
“I figured there would be more questions about my transition, and I would be able to provide some insight into how to ask these questions correctly,” 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 who you are and want to know more about you,” he said. But it’s not for him. “This is really aimed at children in middle school and high school,” he said.
As fast as the app has risen, it has received criticism.
Anonymous messaging platforms such as ASKfm, Yik Yak, Yolo and LMK have long struggled to contain bullying, harassment and threats of violence. Messages on Yik Yak led to several schools evacuating students in response to bomb and shooting threats. Yolo and LMK, anonymous messaging apps, are being sued by the mother of a teenager who committed suicide (the apps were integrated into Snapchat, whose parent company, Snap, was originally sued in the lawsuit, but is no longer).
Secret, another app for anonymous messaging, was shut down in 2015 despite investments from major Silicon Valley players. In a Medium post announcing the company’s closure, David Byttow, one of the founders, wrote that anonymity is “the ultimate double-edged sword”.
Mitch Prinstein, head of science at the American Psychological Association, said that on the Internet, people assume that the opinions of a few represent a large part of the population.
“Anonymity,” he said, “makes this worse.” The result is that if someone leaves an anonymous comment saying that your haircut is ugly, for example, you start to think that everyone thinks your haircut is ugly.
NGL’s website states that the community guidelines “are coming soon” and that the app uses “world-class AI content moderation.” It directs 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 email requests for comment.
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, pointed out that “you do not have to use trigger words to be unkind.”
“If someone starts using racist statements or whatever they can get past AI, you can block them,” Dr. Rutledge said. “But it’s hard to draw boundaries around the comments that undermine how you think about yourself.”
When Reggie Baril, 28, a Los Angeles musician, posted an NGL link for his 12,000 followers on Instagram, he expected questions about his career. “I was very wrong,” he said. Of the 130 responses he received, it was “more hate than not.”
He read a few comments aloud during a telephone interview. “You may be so successful, but your attitude is terrible, you are not going to make it,” he said. “I’m not sure 2015 Reggie will like 2022 Reggie.” Another called him “a social climber.”
He was surprised by the acidity. “I’m not a confrontational person in the least,” he said. “I love making jokes, being clumsy and stupid.” He decided not to take the comments personally. “I read a lot of uncertainty in the subtitle,” he said.
In reviews online, NGL users have said that the app serves fake questions and comments, a phenomenon that technology-focused publications including TechCrunch say they have replicated with their own tests. It is not clear if these answers are generated by the app or by robots.
Johnny G. Lloyd, 32, a playwright living in New York, downloaded NGL as a way to increase engagement on Instagram before the premiere of his new play. During the three times he used it, he noticed some strange contributions.
“I got a question that was, ‘Which girl did you send the last message to?'” He said. “This does not matter in my life at all. It is barking up the wrong tree.” Another message was more cryptic. “It said ‘you know what you did,'” Mr. Lloyd said. “It was quite clear to a younger audience.”
When Clayton Wong, 29, an editorial assistant in Los Angeles, tried out NGL, he received an unexpected “confession” that asked him to search for a specific love song online. Mr. Wong immediately became suspicious. “I did not think the song was very good,” he said. “If this person knew me, they would know that this is not something I would be interested in.”
After scrolling through the comments of the song on YouTube, he realized that dozens of people had received an anonymous “confession” of feelings that had led them to the same video.
A musician friend of Mr. Baril, Johan Lenox, expected a “chaotic” NGL experience, but got the opposite. He was surprised that people wanted to shield their identity when they asked questions such as what he does after performing or what it is like to be a musician. It made him wonder about the point of the app.
“If you want to talk to someone, how do you accomplish this by sending anonymous notes?” he said. He believes NGL will face the fate of other apps that disappeared as quickly as they appeared. “No one will talk about it again in a month,” he said.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.