In the early 2010s, anonymous social media apps like Secret and Yik Yak burst into many people's lives. These apps quickly gained popularity and were hailed as the future of social media at a time when many people sought a higher degree of privacy. Secret and Yik Yak started growing fast, raising $35 million and $73.5 million respectively in their first seven months.
Nevertheless, the success of these two startups didn’t last. In 2015, Secret shut down, washed away by a flow of cyberbullying and competition from Yik Yak. Eventually, Yik Yak also failed due to the lack of a sustainable business model and, like Secret, issues with cyberbullying.
Does this sad story mean that anonymous mobile and web-based platforms are an unpromising industry? Actually, it doesn’t. Other contemporaries of Yik Yak and Secret, such as After School, Anomo, and Whisper, have found more success.
These anonymous social media platforms have also been criticized for creating spaces for bullying. But they’ve managed to survive and thrive thanks to a set of crucial features. Let’s investigate how these apps succeeded and how to make a similar app.
Authentic communication for all!
The goal of anonymous social app development is to bring authentic and safe online communication to both the public and private spheres. Anonymous social networking applications typically don’t require people to create user profiles and collect very little information about their users.
Such apps let people express themselves freely without feeling vulnerable, which is controversial. People who feel free to express their opinions anonymously tend to be straightforward and often overreact. This is particularly true for teenagers, who are prone to hounding peers. An anonymous app should find the right balance between ensuring anonymity and controlling communication within the app.
In addition, an anonymous network requires a special approach to promotion and monetization. Secret was popular, but it could never find a way to generate revenue. We’ve set about highlighting the main challenges faced by anonymous apps: ensuring anonymity, ethics, promotion, and monetization. Let’s consider them in detail.
Read also: How to Make a Successful App
Game rules for anonymous networks
Key pieces of personal information such as photos and videos, email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers, home addresses, workplaces, and friends 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 out anybody else’s profile page. What you can do is go to your own profile to see everything you’ve posted and liked. What’s more, you’ll get customizable push notifications on your device whenever somebody likes or replies to your posts, which demonstrates that the app actually knows what device it should send a notification to even though it doesn’t ask you to log in.
Degree of anonymity
In some anonymous social networks, such as Whisper, users aren’t required to sign up, so the app can’t get their names or emails. To track anonymous users, you can generate a unique user_id or token that can be associated with a user’s device. This means that if a user accesses the app from another device, the app will generate another token for that user and create a new entity in the database.
A user_id and posts associated with it are stored on the back end, so when somebody likes a post or replies to it, the server can send a push notification to the device linked to that user_id. What’s more, the server can access a device’s location information for generating “nearby” feeds.
Other networks require people to sign up for accounts, even though a user’s profile is not linked to their posts. While these apps are still anonymous, they may sync to the user’s contact list or track their location (via IP address) to personalize the user experience. The Kik app allows anyone to sign up by providing a name and email address. Users aren’t required to connect the app to a phone number, and it only identifies a user by their username.
Building both public and anonymous profiles
Your social app can have both public and anonymous modes. The ability to easily change from public to anonymous modes allows users to boldly share jokes and confessions with readers and follow other users.
This is exactly what one of our projects, a social network for cities called Plaza, offers. In the Plaza app, a user may switch between two absolutely different profiles from the settings without needing to log out and then log back in. There are several ways to implement this in code.
One way is to create two independent classes for every profile and throw a token for the session and other attributes to the other class when the user switches profiles. However, this implementation creates a mess in the database due to the lack of dependencies between classes.
Alternatively, you 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 their anonymous persona, 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’s no way to get data about the user unless you know their 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.
How to ensure security for your app users
Unfortunately, no fortress is impregnable. Such giants as Yahoo, Uber, and even the CIA can’t keep all of their secrets. As the owner of an anonymous app, you have to choose what data you need to protect.
We suggest you store as little data as possible to protect private information. Encrypting everything you have on the backend isn’t a solution, as your app will face performance issues. Do you remember how one Tinder user’s data request turned into eight hundred pages? You can provide anonymity for users within chats in anonymous apps by providing encrypted messages.
There are different ways to define a user’s location. Using GPS is the most accurate. One more way is to use an IP address. This method is less accurate, but it’s often used by authorities for deanonymization in conjunction with login time and device footprint.
You can use VPN networks, proxies, or software like Tor to protect yourself from tracking and surveillance. Tor defends a user by redirecting their chat through a distributed network of relays controlled by volunteers.
Apps like Whisper don’t identify users by email address. Such apps instead generate a unique token tagged with a user’s device. Each post and message is connected with the device, and nobody else can get access to the user’s profile.
We can divide anonymous social networks by their degree of anonymity; some networks require users to sign up while others don't require logging in at all.
How technology can help you reduce cyberbullying
Whisper, a long-lived anonymous app, has proved that there are several effective ways to fight verbal abuse on anonymous social networks. Let’s have a look.
Tracking users and suppressing bullying
Whisper constantly monitors users to ban those who are unethical, which means users are not fully anonymous to the app owners. The Whisper app divides users into trusted, untrusted, and banned. If your post contains someone’s name, you’ll be classified by the system as untrusted and you won’t be able to post live.
Replies to posts created on the same IP address show moderators that someone might study at the same school as the post creator, revealing the potential for bullying. The app can ban users, as it assigns all users a random 40-character identifier. A new identifier is generated each time a user installs the app. Then it’s hashed and sent to the app’s servers.
When Whisper launched, it had a human moderation team. Moderators processed and curated posts right after they were created. As the app’s popularity grew, Whisper figured out a more scalable moderation solution.
Arbiter, the company’s machine learning tool, identifies safe content, content that requires filtering, and content that needs to be checked by a human moderator. This tool moderates 70 percent of posts created by users, enabling the moderation team to pay attention to the remaining 30 percent.
This implementation also helps the Whisper editorial team select the most engaging posts. As a result, the company produces educational articles and videos on sensitive subjects posted on the Whisper website.
Suggesting help and support
Whisper users writing about depression and emotional pain are directed to YourVoice, a Whisper non-profit. This website provides access to resources and support for students struggling with depression, bullying, and suicidal thoughts.
In After School, if a reviewer sees that a user’s posts indicate possible self-harm, the reviewer can have the app send a notification asking the user if they want to talk with someone.
Flagging and removing posts
Whisper allows users to flag posts they consider inappropriate, which reduces cyberbullying to some extent. If a certain user has been repeatedly creating abusive posts in your anonymous app, you can issue an in-app warning, and if this doesn’t help, you can block the user.
Read also: Developing a Mental Health App
How to gain users and monetize an anonymous app
Recent history shows that young people love anonymous apps. Secret, Whisper, Yik Yak, and Sarahah were adored by teenagers and went viral in a flash. The takeoff of YOLO, an anonymous question-asking app, was even faster thanks to its collaboration with Snapchat.
YOLO reached the number one position in the US App Store a week after its launch. This app is built on the Snap Kit platform and uses Snapchat for login. As users are not required to create new profiles or upload new pictures (since Snap Kit imports accounts and Bitmoji, or personal emoji), YOLO is easy to join and try.
On the other hand, keep in mind that as easy as it is for anonymous apps targeted at teens to attract users, it’s just as difficult to retain them. Young people tend to follow trends, and with time switch to new and more up-to-date solutions. That’s why you need to constantly upgrade your app by adding new features and designer bells and whistles.
Along with retaining users, generating revenue from anonymous apps has always been a challenge. Because these apps collect little data about users, it’s hard for the companies behind them to advertise. Nevertheless, some apps like Whisper have managed to overcome this obstacle.
Whisper generates revenue by being a brand advertising platform. The company has promotional partnerships with Disney, HBO, and Netflix. Whisper applies a keyword-based approach, where ads are shown to users based on specific words they type in the app.
There are promising opportunities for anonymous app development. For example, your app might enable employees to anonymously share their feelings and opinions with employers and coworkers. Such an app can be a safe place and offer transparency among team members.
Anonymity can also be temporary. Anomo enables people to begin communicating anonymously. As time progresses, they can choose to reveal information about themselves to others. Thanks to this feature, shy and insecure individuals are able to find friends via a private chatting.
Despite the controversy surrounding anonymous social media apps, they have great potential to become viral. Developing mobile apps with anonymous capabilities is a challenging but exciting venture! Start from an app prototype, which will help you build a model of your app to review and test before building the final product. If you’re considering outsourcing app development, Yalantis will help you implement your idea.