From over-sharing to under-sharing: how teens are taking their social conversations underground

Leith Content Strategist George Gunn on the ever-growing appetite for ‘online clandestinity’.

Twitter celebrated its 10th birthday last year, which made a lot of us feel very old all of a sudden. YouTube and Facebook (and Myspace) have been in our lives for even longer — with social media a feature of the Internet mainstream for about 15 years now.

Teenagers and young adults have effectively grown up with social media as an ever-present part of their lives. They also watched as the rest of us blindly stumbled straight into social networking - like moths to a flame - with no comprehension of how our personal data was being hoovered up, or of the real-world repercussions of posting online.

Everything posted online stays there forever, is identifiable to us, and is conveniently searchable and time-stamped.

Just ask Labour MP Jared O’Mara. If this isn’t enough, everything we ‘like’ is searchable; a feature of identity-based social media that’s recently caused some embarrassment for US Senator Ted Cruz. As well as impacting future career prospects, social posts have led to several firings and even prison sentences — most recently for Grenfell Tower rubbernecker Omega Mwaikambo and “America’s most hated man” (some achievement these days): so-called ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli.

Away from the criminal and stupid, social media usage is regularly linked to increased anxiety, often through ‘self-presentation fatigue’. As uMentioned’s Christopher Travers explains:

We create this model of how we want people to see us. We monitor what we post and what we like and how we look. But we’re bottling up this other side of us — the real side. You can never truly be yourself without being able to be anonymous.”

All of this has ushered in an appetite for ‘online clandestinity’, where anonymous posters are free to be more outrageous, less anxious about judgement, and just more themselves. This is particularly the case amongst younger Internet users. Even back in 2012, 70% of US teens hid their online lives from their parents — often creating fake personas or duplicate social media profiles.

Photo by Gilles Lambert
Online anonymity: a brief history:

First came so-called ‘confession sites’, where users could anonymously submit secrets, rumours and gossip without fear of being identified.

PostSecret started in 2005 as a community mail art project, and provided a safe community for people to freely speak their minds (with a voyeuristic appeal for readers). Inspired by PostSecret, anonymous confession threads sprung out of several US college LiveJournal communities — causing a breeding ground for localised, campus-based gossip.

Anonymous apps inevitably followed. Secret, one of the most popular of these first-wave anonymous apps, launched in 2014 with the following statement:

“We built Secret for people to be themselves and share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment.”

Secret’s creators championed a platform that would “bring more authenticity, self-awareness and empathy to the world”. There was one pretty major problem though. Internet users, particularly teenagers and young adults, aren’t very nice to each other.

Trolling, defamation and cyberbullying are rampant enough on mainstream social media, stemming from what John Suler calls the online disinhibition effect’ (essentially, an empathy deficit and lack of restraint as a by-product of non-physical interaction). Secret’s platform — with its added veil of anonymity — only made things worse. As Time’s former tech editor Harry McCracken wrote at the time of its release:

“I shudder to think what teenagers might do to each other on a social network where they know their friends are reading, but they can’t be held responsible for what they say about each other.”

It didn’t take long for McCracken’s fears to come true. Secret shut down after a year due to abuse on the platform, while sexually aggressive comments, racism and even bomb threats contributed to the demise of competitor Yik Yak. Nine teenage suicides were linked to cyberbullying on Ask.fm - causing then-Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a boycott.

Photo by Justin Main

Even now, the problem of cyberbullying remains a largely unsolved problem. Candid, launched in 2016, aimed to use machine learning to flag abuse (which led to 40% of posts being removed). Trendwatching talked excitedly of a ‘tantalizing future of anonymity without the assholes!’ Unfortunately, like so many of the pioneer anonymous apps, Candid shut down.

The appeal and popularity of anonymous apps amongst Gen Z is undeniable, and their usefulness extends beyond teenage expression and gossip; activists, particularly those in totalitarian states, are free to mobilise and express dissent without fear of repercussions.

With the desire for online clandestinity going nowhere, will the current leaders — Sarahah and Whisper — be able to stamp out the bullies and trolls for good? Or is Facebook’s recent purchase of new anonymous teen compliment app tbh an indication that the traditional social media giants will start to wade into the space and offer solutions?