Rhodri Marsden: Whisper it - anonymous social networks sound like a terrifying idea

  • @rhodri

If there's one recurrent online motif that makes me want to find whoever invented social media and subject them to brutal questioning, it's the indiscriminate use of inspirational quotes.

Deployed by people who see an empty text box in front of them and can't think what to say, they pluck some hackneyed expression from the recesses of their mind and start typing. "Life is for living," they might observe with great insight, or perhaps "Rule one of life: Do what makes YOU happy." At which point we're probably supposed to immediately book ourselves in for a parachute jump or spa treatment.

Anyway, you'll find a whole heap of these things on Whisper, the much whispered-about app that grants its contributors anonymity. "Life is like photography," posts someone, "you need the negatives to develop." (These Whispered pieces of wisdom all appear on a picture background, which lends them some superficial extra weight as they look a bit like motivational posters.) Other whisperers, however, aren't quite so content. "Single dad of two looking for women for friendly chat and maybe more," says one. "At Wetherspoons on my own," says another. I close the app, wearily.

It's hard to tell whether this is actually the case, but we're told that anonymous social-media apps are the next big thing. There are certainly a bunch of services jostling for pole position, all with minor differences which their creators hope will mark them out from the crowd.

Aforementioned Whisper brings random strangers together for an unknown purpose. Secret, available in the US and launching in the UK soon, connects you anonymously with friends in your phone book to enable unattributable gossip to rage in a no-holds-barred fashion. Yik Yak has been described as a "hyper-local Twitter", and was used anonymously by school students in the US until their access was shut down following concerns over bullying.

Sneeky, created by the designer of the unmourned social game Draw Something, allows you to send anonymous photos to people you have the phone number of. Most of these will sink. One may swim.

But what's the point? We're told that younger people are lured by the prospect of anonymous interaction because of privacy concerns – they know that social media screw-ups may come back to haunt them later on. But these apps evidently open the door to hurtful invective that "serves the darker parts of human nature," as one critic put it.

For years now, moderators of online forums have sought to banish anonymity as a method of raising the level of debate, but others maintain that anonymity is essential for creative expression. Indeed, the creators of one imminently launching anonymous service, Cloaq, talks of a "platform to give intelligent people a way to speak their minds freely". And maybe let other intelligent people know that they're in Wetherspoons on their own.

These services may claim to be a solution to privacy concerns, but enabling unattributable gossip makes privacy even harder to maintain, because you never know who's going to be telling someone else what you've been up to. And you'll probably never find out.

Maybe that's what all the inspirational quotes are about – keep it safe, post something benign, and then everything will be OK. Of course, we could just not post anything at all, but we're finding that fact increasingly difficult to remember.