When it comes to connecting and communicating, there’s no shortage of choices available to teenagers (and the rest of us). How these different options work and impact the way teens communicate is worth exploring. There are three camps when it comes to social and messaging apps: private, semi-private and anonymous.
Anonymous apps, like Whisper or Yik Yak, offer consequence-free communication for posters. Names aren’t used and many of these apps don’t collect phone number, email addresses or other personal information. Of course, just because the sender’s name isn’t used doesn’t mean names are missing all together. You can frequently find people named in posts and rarely in a positive way.
This has had consequences on the perception of these apps. Yik Yak, for example, detects when someone is near a middle school or high school (it’s intended for 17+) and won’t display posts or allow them to be made. This is likely due to some of the concerns around bullying and threats of violence.
Private social/messaging apps like Facebook and iMessage are easier to understand. Even if they don’t use real names, these apps are all about individuals and groups connecting with each other. These treat identity and privacy in different ways. Some use real names, others use user names. Some store messages on servers, others do not. Some keep content indefinitely while others let it evaporate after a time.
Finally, there are semi-private apps like Instagram, Kik and Tango where posts and profiles may be public but conversations are not. These apps can also allow information to be viewed and shared in ways the poster might not have originally anticipated.
All three types of apps have their place but one interesting issue affecting all of them is the conflation of anonymity and privacy. I decided to get some other perspectives on this issue so asked people involved with app development, marketing and advertising for their thoughts:
“Open and productive communications are impossible when one party is hiding behind the armor of anonymity. Consider the difference between driving and walking. No one swears at strangers as they pass on the sidewalk, but it's rampant when we’re behind the wheel. In digital communications anonymity can be harmful to brands and individuals alike whereas private, or even semi-private communications, offer a nice alternative to the wide exposure of public comments. Think Angie's List reviews as opposed to anonymous blog comments from Internet trolls.” —Beth Monaghan, principal, InkHouse Media
“Teens have flocked to apps like Snapchat and Yik Yak; but as we know, their claims of security and privacy are not exactly watertight. This is because messages sent using those services are stored on servers, meaning they can be — and have been — compromised. This can be a problem for teens since they are notorious for acting before they think — so their need for assured privacy is almost a safety net — as is the ability to delete a regrettable text message after the fact.” — Greg Parker, founder of Raketu, creator of the RakEM app
“Teens are an expressive crowd and they crave public gratification, whether its favorites/likes, comments or just having a photo added to a stream. We’ve discovered it’s best to offer multiple communications layers — anonymous when needed, private when they want to share with a friend, and public when they can get larger feedback.” — William Agush, founder of Shuttersong
“Anonymity means not being accountable for what you say — and usually not controlling who hears or reads it. Privacy, on the other hand, not only gives you control over who hears what you say but also makes you accountable for it. Young people should consider whether they are willing to be accountable for what they share on anonymous apps — sometimes posting is the brave thing to do, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.” — Jenny Mirken, founder of Jet
“Effective communication often comes down to truth and honesty. If you want the public to view your comments as truth, then be honest about who you are. If the truth is not appropriate for public consumption, keep it private. And, in those instances when anonymity can help uncover the truth (market research, for instance), only share it with those who need to know.” — Jeff Freedman, CEO, Small Army
The points about accountability and honesty ring true. For teens — or anyone — to communicate there needs to be some knowledge of who is on the other side of the screen. Sure, it can be liberating to say whatever is on your mind without worrying about the consequences but can it be the basis for a two-way conversation?
For brands that want to establish meaningful connections with teenage customers, it’s hard to imagine the anonymous route being at all effective since anonymity by its very nature negates the benefit of the brand. Private or semi-private channels make more sense and there are great examples appearing every day. To be successful, keep the channels of communication clear, open and honest — and for goodness sake, don’t confuse privacy with anonymity.