It seems like every few years, a new anonymous messaging platform hits the market; quickly gains fan base, investment and media attention; Then it crashes and burns. Usually, the reason is some combination of unrestrained bullying, harassment, or misinformation that flourishes within the platform.
And yet, applications keep coming. One of the latest arrivals is NGL, which invites users to request anonymous questions and comments from their followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere. NGL, the app’s website explains, “means no cheating.”
Between June and the first half of July, NGL was downloaded about 3.2 million times in the United States, according to app analyst firm Sensor Tower. It was the 10th most downloaded app in the Apple and Google Play stores in June, Sensor Tower said.
“Anonymity has always been the secret sauce,” said Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies people’s relationships with technology. He said that the desire for anonymous self-expression is not new, pointing to the confession booth in some churches as an example.
But, he added, the desire for anonymity was never about anonymity. After all, in many cases, the promise of anonymity is false, or at best qualified – the priest often knows who the confessor is, and the applications that collect and distribute secrets simultaneously collect personal data of their users. In fact, NGL, which launched in November, goes even further, offering users hints about their respondents for $9.99 a week.
“Anonymity is a way to open the door to space and permission, liminal space, between realms where you can express something true or speak a truth that you can’t in your entire life,” Professor Turkle said. Author of The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.
Harold David, 34, a fitness company administrator in New York City, recently tried NGL. “It’s fun to see what people will say when it’s anonymous,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to know someone’s secret thoughts about them?”
He said he saw several friends using the app and expected “rougher or more vulgar” comments. But, he said, “it’s actually been a warm stream of feedback about people’s experiences with me, so it’s been a really nice surprise.”
Haras Shirley, 26, a school resource officer in Indipolis, had a less than positive experience. Mr. Shirley received about a dozen responses after posting the NGL link on Facebook and Instagram.
“I realized there would be more questions about my transition and I could figure out how to ask those questions appropriately,” she said. Instead, she said most of the questions were superficial, asking what her favorite color is or what was the last thing she ate.
He understands the appeal of the app. “These apps give you the sense that people are interested in who you are and want to know more about you,” he said. But it’s not for him. “It’s really geared toward middle and high school kids,” he said.
As the app grew, it came under fire.
Anonymous messaging platforms such as ASKfm, Yik Yak, Yolo and LMK have long struggled to curb bullying, harassment and threats of violence. Messages on Yik Yak have prompted several schools to evacuate students in response to bomb and shooting threats. Yolo and LMK, the anonymous messaging apps, are being sued by the mother of a teenager who killed herself (the apps were integrated into Snapchat, whose parent company, Snap, was originally a defendant in the lawsuit, but is no longer).
Secret, another anonymous messaging app, shut down in 2015 despite investment from major Silicon Valley players. In a Medium post announcing the company’s closure, David Bittow, one of its founders, wrote that anonymity is “the ultimate double-edged sword.”
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, said that people on the Internet assume that the opinions of a few people represent the majority of the population.
“Anonymity,” he said, “makes it worse.” The result is that if someone leaves an anonymous comment that your haircut is ugly, for example, you start to think that everyone thinks your haircut is ugly.
NGL’s website says its community guidelines are “coming soon” and that the app uses “world-class AI content moderation.” It directs users to the website of Hive Moderation, a company that uses software to filter text, images and audio based on categories such as bullying and violence. NGL did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Center for Research in Media Psychology, noted that “it is not necessary to use provocative words to be rude.”
“If someone starts using a racial slur or something that AI can override, you can block them,” Dr Rutledge said. “But it’s hard to draw boundaries around comments that undermine your opinion of yourself.”
When Reggie Baril, 28, a musician in Los Angeles, posted the NGL link to his 12,000 followers on Instagram, he expected questions about his career. “I was very wrong,” he said. Of the 130 responses he received, there was “more hate than not.”
He read some of the comments aloud during a phone interview. “You can be so successful, but your attitude is terrible, you’re not going to make it,” he said. “I’m not sure Reggie of 2015 will like Reggie of 2022.” Another called him a “social climber.”
The acidity surprised him. “I’m not a confrontational person in the slightest,” he said. “I love to joke around and be silly and goofy.” He decided not to take the comments personally. “I read a lot of vulnerability into the subtext,” he said.
In online reviews, NGL users said the app served them fake questions and comments, a phenomenon that tech-focused publications including TechCrunch said they replicated in their own tests. It is not clear whether these responses are generated by the app or by bots.
Johnny G. Lloyd, 32, a playwright based in New York City, downloaded NGL as a way to increase her Instagram engagement before the premiere of her new play. After using it three times, he noticed some strange submissions.
“I had one question: ‘Which girl did you text last?'” he said. “It doesn’t matter at all in my life. This is barking up the wrong tree.” Another message was more cryptic. “You know what you’ve done,” said Mr. Lloyd. “It was clearly aimed at a younger audience.”
When 29-year-old Clayton Wong, an editorial assistant in Los Angeles, tried NGL, he got an unexpected “confession” that told him to look up a specific love song online. Mr. Wong was immediately suspicious. “I didn’t think the song was very good,” he said. “If this person knew me, they would know that this is not who I would be.”
After he looked at the song’s comments on YouTube, he realized dozens of people had made anonymous “confessions” of feelings that led them to the same video.
Mr Baril’s musician friend, Johan Lennox, expected a “chaotic” NGL experience but got the opposite. He was surprised that people wanted to protect their identities when asked questions like what he does after a performance or what it means to be a musician. That left him with the idea of an app.
“If you want to talk to someone, how are you going to do that by sending anonymous notes? she said. He thinks NGL will meet the fate of other apps that have disappeared as quickly as they appeared. “In a month, no one will be talking about it,” he said.
Alain Delacarrier contributed to the research.