Psst! Can anyone make a success of anonymous messaging?

Hey. Wanna know a secret? Making a successful app based on anonymous messaging is really really hard.

Actually, that’s not a secret at all. Just do a Google search on Whisper, After School, BlindSpot, Secret or Yik Yak, and hundreds of links will spell it out for you. They will explain how these apps enjoyed tremendous early success before fizzling out with alarming speed.

All launched with the same basic idea: give people a chance to post anonymous messages that other users could like or comment on. The apps provided an honest alternative to Facebook and Twitter, where the temptation is always to present a positive side of yourself.

Investors liked the idea. Whisper, for example, raised $61 million from VCs.

But, sadly, we all know how these things work out. Many people used the platforms to confess to problems, and received support and practical help from others. But many more just took the chance to bully and harass. 

As a result, Yik Yak shut down in April 2017, while Secret closed in 2016. After School was banned from iTunes while Whisper is still trying to re-invent itself after laying off 20 per cent of its staff.

When Secret wound up, its founder David Byttow wrote a sad post on Medium revealing his enduring belief in the concept of the anonymous messaging app. He said: “I believe in honest, open communication and creative expression, and anonymity is a great device to achieve it. 

“But it’s also the ultimate double-edged sword, which must be wielded with great respect and care. I look forward to seeing what others in this space do over time.”

In a way, he was right. Why? Because others are still trying to make a success of anonymous messaging.

Which brings us to Sarahah.

A few days ago, apparently out of nowhere, this Saudi Arabian app rose to the top of the download charts.

Sarahah (which means ‘honesty’ in Arabic) is essentially the same as other anonymous apps. It lets users leave anonymous posts on other users’ profiles. Optimistically, it asks people to leave only ”constructive messages”.

So why has it broken through? It’s because users can link their profiles to SnapChat and Instagram. This has helped Sarahah go viral with an estimated 15m users.

Can it survive? Well, there have already been dozens of articles describing it as a ‘tool for cyberbullying’. There are also sites that claim to have hacked Sarahah to reveal users’ email addresses.

Ultimately, human nature may decide whether Sarahah flourishes or struggles. Will the trolls win? Probably.