Anonymous Snapchat app Yolo shows no sign of slowing down after rocketing to popularity, especially among teens.
Yolo just raised an additional $8 million in funding, while revealing new group chat features and measures to protect users from predators.
The problem with anonymous apps like these go far beyond predators and go directly into the heart of the premise itself and how teens inevitably take advantage of anonymity.
What is Yolo?
The app allows users to answer questions posted to Snapchat stories anonymously. The messages or replies are completely anonymous. To protect identity, the sender is identified as “Someone” when the message shows up on the Snapchat user’s phone. There is no way to identify the sender unless the sender chooses to reveal their own identity.
When used “properly”, the idea is innocent enough. It’s a cute way for kids to answer silly questions on Snapchat. However, the freedom that the app’s anonymity provides to young users creates a dark and potentially deeply damaging underbelly.
The Problem with Anonymity
Providing teenagers, who are just learning how to navigate the social scene, both in social media and the real world, with anonymity creates a lack of accountability that allows for bad behavior. The most concerning form of that bad behavior is cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is a huge problem that both parents and children are just learning to navigate in the modern world. It’s hard enough on apps where users can be identified, like Instagram and Twitter. Dealing with cyberbullying on anonymous platforms is a whole different animal.
When a teenager knows that no one can connect the bullying Yolo answer back to them, they are shielded from any responsibility, from any chance of facing consequences, and they are more likely to say something absolutely brutal.
The Ones That Came Before
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as social media. Anonymous apps have morphed over the years, but have existed in some form for at least a decade.
When I was in my early teens, the hottest anonymous question and answer app was Formspring. That app eventually folded after years of knock-down-drag-out teenage bullying. I had a Formspring back in the day, and I fell victim to some seriously bad anonymous bullying. I left school and moved across the country to get away from it.
After the fall of Formspring, YikYak came to fill the void a few years later. YikYak was a toxic trainwreck of an anonymous messaging app, based on the user’s location. It was especially popular on college campuses, and it went just about as well as you can expect when drunken frat boys are granted total anonymity.
The messages were often super racist, threatening sexual violence, or just plain gross. I wish I had saved the screenshots from some of the worst ones on my college campus. Far too often, a message would pop up that was beyond inappropriate, bordering into the truly terrifying. The anonymity meant no one could do anything about it.
A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Yolo resurrects this idea, terrible as it may be, and brings it back into the lives of modern teens. Do you remember the definition of insanity? This is that.
Expecting different results when apps grant young people total anonymity is not only misguided, it’s dangerous. Bullying has long-standing consequences for those who experience it, and the anonymous nature means zero consequences or opportunities for learning and rehabilitation for the bullies.
Snapchat, the app that Yolo connects to, recently launched a mental health initiative called Here For You. The goal is to try to help with anxiety and depression amongst its users. It’s a valiant effort, but as long as Snapchat allows anonymity on its platform, it’s doubtful that Here For You will make any meaningful difference.