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Developing an Anonymous Social Networking App

Social media networks can take on many different forms to meet many different demands. One form is the anonymous social network. In 2014, anonymous social media apps emerged such as Secret, Whisper, YikYak, and Facebook Rooms. Such apps quickly gained popularity, as many people seek a level of privacy in our digital age.

The goal of anonymous social media is to bring authentic and safe communication to both public and private social spheres. Anonymous social apps don’t typically require people to create user profiles, and collect very little information about their users. Such apps let people express themselves freely without feeling vulnerable.

Why is anonymity a trend?

How to build an anonymous app like Whisper According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, 86% of internet users have tried to be anonymous online. These individuals have taken steps to try to mask their behavior or avoid being tracked by advertisers, certain people from their past, employers, hackers, governments (especially after Snowden revealed that “real-name” networks like Facebook had been tracked by the government), and law enforcement.

The most common strategy of hiding from observers is clearing cookies and browser history, and using fake names online. A large number of people have taken even more sophisticated steps, such as encrypting their email or using Virtual Personal Networks (VPNs) or proxy servers that are designed to prevent tracking of online activities.

Needless to say, people want more control over their privacy. Perhaps “anonymous” social networks would encourage the same sort of human connection that Facebook offers, but without the drawback of disclosing your true identity along the way?

In my previous article, I explained how you can build a typical social networking application. This time, however, I’ll talk about anonymous social networking app development.

How do you identify users if they are anonymous?

Key pieces of personal information such as photos and videos, email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers, home addresses, workplaces, and friend lists are non-existent in profiles on anonymous social networks. Sometimes, in fact, there are no profiles at all.

In Whisper, for example, you can’t check anybody’s profile page. What you can do, though, is go to your own profile to see everything you’ve posted and liked. What’s more, you get push notifications on your device whenever somebody likes or replies to your post, which means that the app actually knows what device it should send a notification to even though it didn’t ask you to log in.

We can divide anonymous social networks into two categories – login and non-login apps.

  • non-login

In a previous article I discussed how a database for a social networking app stores a user entity with the following possible attributes: user_id (email), username, first name, last name; I also discussed how a database defines relationships between entities. Any interaction that happens in the app is linked to a certain user.

In some anonymous social networks, such as Whisper, the user isn’t required to log in, so we can’t get their name or email. To track anonymous users, we can generate a unique user_id or a token, that can be associated solely with a user’s device. This means that if a user accesses the app from another device, the app will generate another token and create a new entity in the database. A user_id and posts that are associated with it are stored on a backend, so when somebody likes a post or replies to it, we can send a push notification to the device that is linked to that user_id.  What’s more, we can access its location information for generating “nearby” feeds.

Some years ago, iOS developers used a unique device identifier (UDID) as a sort of "anonymized" token. However, in 2013, Apple stopped accepting iPhone and iPad apps that collect UDID. The reason for this decision was because of security concerns.

  • login

There are quite a lot of anonymous social networks that actually require users to log in. In the Cloaq app, users enter in a password and get assigned an @id number. The numbers will start at @alpha1 and go through @alpha999 before moving on to @beta1 and @beta9999.

Other apps may ask you to enter a random username with a password, or quite often, your phone number. Anonymous social app developers use your phone number to show you the posts created by your friends, thus making you far more willing to spend time in the app.

When the Secret app just launched, we became quite obsessed with it here at Yalantis. I remember I even asked somebody who wasn’t in my address book for their phone number so I could see more secrets posted in the app. Although the obsession was rather short-lived, it was a lot of fun to use Secret.

How do you create both public and anonymous profiles?

Some social apps have both public and anonymous profiles. This is exactly what one of our projects, a social network for cities called Plaza, offers its users. In this app a user may switch between two absolutely different profiles from the settings without any need to log out and then log back in with proper credentials. There are several ways to implement this in code.

public and anonymous profiles in one app

[Public and anonymous profiles in the Plaza app, designed and developed by Yalantis. Check it out on Dribbble]

One way is to create two independent classes for every profile and throw a token of the session and other attributes to the other class when a user switches a profile. However, this implementation creates a mess in the database due to the lack of dependencies between classes.

Alternatively, we could create one super class with a set of fields for both users (e.g. name, anonymousName, avatar, anonymousAvatar). But in this case, every network request would transmit all information about a user including his or her anonymous personality, which contradicts the notion of “anonymity.”

We chose the most secure implementation. In Plaza, every user account has a set of “characters” attached to it (just like in RPG games). Each character is absolutely independent and doesn’t know about the existence of others. There is no way to get the data about all the characters unless you know the username and password. This approach isn’t only secure, it’s also quite scalable, which means we can add more characters to a user account without any problem.

Anonymous Chats

Most anonymous social networks let users chat with other members privately. Messages can be encrypted or unencrypted, and can be saved on a user’s device or on a backend.

Encrypted messages sound cooler than unencrypted, so a lot of anonymous social apps prefer to use this feature to distinguish themselves from others.

anonymous social app development

[The Yik Yak app]

A third-party service for anonymous messaging, Anonyfish encrypts private messages using AES and BLOWFISH ciphers and deletes them after 45 days. This service was built specifically for the chat feature in the Secret app. After a while, though, Secret introduced their own private chat where conversations were ephemeral – they deleted themselves after about a day of inactivity. And after that, the Secret app was shut down.

Another great example from the anonymous world is Minds.com, which attracted the likes of Anonymous, a network of activists and hacktivists that walk around wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Mind.com offers end-to-end encrypted private messaging, and is both a social network in its own right on web and mobile, and also a free and open-source platform on which others can build their own social networks with encryped messengers.  

Read also: How much does it cost to develop a messaging app?

Content Sharing and Interactions

Since the main idea of anonymous social apps is communication, many people confuse them with private messaging apps like Telegram. However, there is a clear difference: content posted to social networks is visible to anyone who logs in, or perhaps to anyone within a given geographical region. In other words, anonymous social networks are “one-to-many” sharing apps, not “one-to-one” mobile messengers, even though they may offer private chats among their features.

People are more likely to get involved with anonymous social networks if posts are somehow tied to their location or community. This is the reason why the Secret app required users to log in using their phone numbers. The app could then get access to the address book of the user, and filter posts into "friend" and "explore" feeds.

Here are some of the various feeds that anonymous social networks might offer:

Popular/explore feed featuring posts that have the largest number of shares, likes, replies, or upvotes throughout the whole network.

Nearby feed is based on user location data and displaying posts shared with those in proximity to the user. For example, Yik Yak is a location-based anonymous social networking app that allows users to comment and vote on posts only within their community.

Latest feed listing posts that just got shared. Since posts in the “latest feed” get more exposure, they can potentially help you fill the popular feed much faster.

School feed usually requires you to add search to the feed so users can choose the school among those available in your database.

Company feed can require users to register with their company name. Memo, for example, is an anonymous app specifically geared toward professional environments. To verify if people work where they say they work, Memo checks LinkedIn profiles, then assigns a number and the company name to the user identity.

Building an anonymous app like Memo

[The Memo app]

There are several ways to increase user engagement with an anonymous social network through feeds. In the now-defunct Secret app users could participate in private chats with strangers only after they had actively participated by commenting on other people’s posts.

The above-mentioned Minds.com rewards people for interacting with posts by voting or commenting. Users are given points that can then be exchanged for views, meaning that the posts of active members will be promoted more by the network.

Read also: Mobile app development cost

The main purpose of an anonymous social network is sharing content. That’s also their main problem.

How do we reduce cyber-bullying?

Anonymous social networks are often criticized for feeding the growing problem of cyberbullying. It’s not that social apps like Facebook don’t have anything to do with this problem, but when our identity is known we’re less likely to be nasty to each other.

When people aren’t held accountable for their behavior, they will often behave badly. Online anonymity makes it easier to gossip, sell drugs, extort, and engage in other not-so-reputable activities.

Anonymous features in Ask.fm, for example, were referenced as directly contributing to a handful of teen suicides. There are a few ways we can fight verbal abuse on anonymous social networks:

1. Flagging posts and in-app warnings

Letting users flag posts that they consider inappropriate can reduce cyberbullying to some extent. If a certain user has been repeatedly making abusive posts, you can issue an in-app warning, and if this doesn’t help, you can block the user.

2. Removing posts

To inspect and remove any harmful or abusive posts you’d need to hire a team of individuals, and also develop an algorithm to detect and remove any abusive posts the individuals may miss.

Cloak, an anonymous social app

[The Cloak app]

3. Limiting the number of users

Restricting a user base means that all contents are still available to the public, however only registered users can post. This is the method that the Cloaq app uses to reduce garbage in the app’s feeds.

4. Geo-fencing

By implementing geo-fencing with the help of GPS coordinates you can prevent the app from working in a certain area (e.g. within a school). Yik Yak applied geo-fences around middle and high schools around the US after cyberbullying in the app spiked.

Of course, students could still use the Yik Yak app at home and elsewhere outside of school, but it puts an immediate damper on all the so-called “fun.” To implement these bans nationwide, Yik Yak approached third-party data provider Maponics in order to license GPS data.

Applying measures to stop cyber-bullying in anonymous social apps is absolutely necessary. But as it turns out, sanitizing the experience to protect people’s feelings may cause an app to lose popularity. After Ask.fm agreed to work with regulators to implement cyberbullying protections, it dramatically descended from the top of the App Store. When Secret started taking steps to prevent users from typing in people’s real names, it also began to decline.

In other words, it’s a vicious cycle – when the trash talk drops, so does the app’s popularity.

In other words, fighting cyberbullying is a vicious cycle – when the trash talk drops, so does an app’s popularity.

Despite the controversy surrounding anonymous social media apps, they have great potential to become viral. To create an anonymous social media app is a challenging venture, but an exciting one, too!

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