Anonymity sans negativity

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 17.22.06
Illustration: Flo McQuibban

A new anonymous messaging app called Thoughts Around Me has been launched at the University of St Andrews. The app is available for both Android and iOS users to download and allows students to talk anonymously to one another as well as read and contribute to trending discussions globally. The app also enables users to post images, GIFS and polls as well as upvote and downvote discussion topics. Founder Kassem Younis told The Saint that the app will also be “rolling out some more exciting features soon” to enhance the conversational experience of its users.

The University of St Andrews is one of several universities where the app has been launched. This means that the University logo appears at the top of phones’ screens whilst students are using the app to talk to each other anonymously. When asked about why St Andrews had been chosen as one of the app’s launching sites, Mr Younis told The Saint that the University was a priority “because of its prestige and also the potential for extremely interesting discourse that could result [here].” On reflection, the University does seem an ideal place to launch such an app considering how popular other social media networks, such as Yik Yak, have become among students. It could even be suggested that such apps have had a visible influence on student behaviour, with the most notorious example occurring when people started queuing earlier than in previous years to buy tickets for the Mermaids’ Christmas Ball. Many blamed this on the hype that had been generated on Yik Yak the night before.

When questioned about how similar Thoughts Around Me is to other anonymous platforms, Mr Younis said: “Yik Yak is more just a bulletin board. There is not a lot of conversation happening, whereas on Thoughts Around Me we have some threads that go into the thousands of comments.” He added that the app has already facilitated discussions about a wide range of topics around the UK. “We have seen amazing conversations about people struggling with their sexuality, to domestic and emotional abuse, workplace advice to more positive stuff such as two strangers writing a novel together on a thread,” he said.

If received positively by students the app could be a refreshing change from the constant complaints and Dundee snubs that currently fill the feeds of Yik Yakkers St Andrews-wide. There is no denying the fact that such yaks can be used as highly amusing procrastination material during revision week. However, for students who want to explore more personal issues or just have a meaningful conversation about something that interests them, Thoughts Around Me might be the app that they did not know they wanted. St Andrews has a diverse and intelligent student body so it is easy to imagine how Thoughts Around Me, with its focus on discussion, could enrich the current social media scene at the University and enhance online interaction between students.

Another difference that Mr Younis points out is the demographic differences between Thoughts Around Me and other social media platforms. “Yik Yak’s demographic is from early teens to university ages whereas our biggest demographic is between 25 and 35,” which he suggests is the reason why his app supports more mature discourse than others. The aforementioned Dundee snubs on Yik Yak prove this point. Mr Younis adds that the demographic for the app Whisper is “even younger” and, in his opinion, is why the app creates “quite a toxic environment.”

Mr Younis is not the only one to point out that other anonymous sites have become hotbeds of negativity online. Following concerns that Yik Yak had become a tool for cyberbullies to assert their dominance, measures were taken to block the app in many high schools and middle schools in America. The app was amended so that geofences stopped students being able to access the app in the areas surrounding many schools.

When asked about what measures have been put in place to stop cyberbullying on Thoughts Around Me, Mr Younis assured The Saint that the moderation team has been a “core component” of the app from the start and that stringent measures have been put in place to stop people from abusing the anonymity that the app affords them. “We have a 24/7 moderation team that is internal, unlike everyone else who outsources to the Philippines,” he said. He also explained that the Thoughts Around Me team uses algorithms and internal tools involving “quite a complex system [that] scores users and becomes more strict on them if they are repeat offenders,” which means that their content will reach a moderator more easily. The team also takes a zero-tolerance approach to anyone who misuses the app and bans those who post inappropriate or discriminatory material permanently. Ultimately, Thoughts Around Me provides “a service where you can simply just discuss whatever is on your mind in a safe environment.”

Far from being a university where bullying is a problem, St Andrews is generally a tolerant community where people are able to discuss their views through various debates and club activities. However, anonymous social media sites are still valuable in such an environment as they allow an equality that is not possible in real life. Indeed, equality seems to be a core concept of Thoughts Around Me. Mr Younis told The Saint that the app revolves around the basic idea that “we all think, we all feel and inside we are the same.” He also notes: “It’s really motivating to see how people from extremely different ends of the social graph manage to connect over common issues.” Hopefully the app will encourage similar connections among St Andrews students and allow meaningful discourse between groups that would not normally mix in the established social scene. For example, the app might encourage residents of different halls to converse without rivalries, however tedious, getting in the way.

Although discrimination and prejudice are, thankfully, not a prevalent feature of our community, subconscious preconceptions and fear of judgment from others can still hinder discussion between students. Thoughts Around Me hopes to provide a way around this block.

Another reason why we should value sites that allow anonymous interaction is that they remove the presence of appearance-based prejudice from the online community. Unlike other social media platforms there are no profile pictures associated with users on Thoughts Around Me or Yik Yak. So the focus is on what is being said rather than on physical appearance or how one presents himself. Indeed, many other social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have been criticized for encouraging users to present enhanced versions of their lives. As Mr Younis points out, social media as it currently exists is no longer fulfilling its purpose. “Social media has failed us in the sense that it is not really social,” he says. “It’s become a type of social PR.” Instead of sharing genuine thoughts people agonize over how to best portray themselves, which results in an online presence that is inconsistent with reality.

In this way, anonymity encourages authenticity, in addition to providing more privacy. Mr Younis notes that a major priority of the app is to give users digital privacy, something for which he personally advocates. “Unlike other apps, there is no personal information we store [at Thoughts Around Me],” he says. “No phone number, email, anything.” He adds that this has the added benefits of protecting users because “if we get hacked, you are safe.”

The app certainly has potential, but as of yet it is flying under the radar of St Andrews students. Currently the home screen states: “There are no posts in your area.” Only time will tell what sort of discussions will occur after the herd of Yik Yakkers discover this new grazing spot.


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