This morning, a friend of mine sent me an email.
“A friend of mine is going to kill themselves, according to Secret,” he wrote. He attached the image above. Secret is an app where people can post anything they want anonymously.
My friend told me he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know who had written the post, because that’s the whole point of Secret’s platform. All he knew was that whoever wrote it was someone he had stored in his contacts. The only option, it seemed, was to report the message to Secret. A drop down box allowed him to check “self harm” as the reason for reporting the post. After being flagged, the suicide threat disappeared.
And that was it. Now what?
Anonymous apps have been all over the news in the last few months. Whisper, another anonymous app just raised $US36 million, giving it $US60 million in total funding. At the end of 2013, Whisper was doing 3 billion pageviews per month. Then there’s Yik Yak, another anonymous app that’s popular with teenagers. It stopped time in high school hallways everywhere.
Secret gives you a blank box to write a small amount of text in, and has mostly served as a venue for Silicon Valley startup speculation and inside-tech baseball smear campaigns.
People are encouraged to post anything, estranging themselves from their identity.
But Secret has that one crucial piece that the others do not: You know if a Secret is coming from a “Friend.” This creates a new element of sustainable community that Whisper and Yik Yak may not have, but, in a case where the poster is threatening to harm themselves or others, it also creates one that an innocent bystander may not want to be a part of.
Anonymous sites have never been lacking in threats of self-harm.
PostSecret founder Frank Warren made an entire career out of collecting people’s secrets, choosing the most aesthetically pleasing, gripping ones, and packaging them up to be sold to the masses.
Lots of people felt connected to those secrets. But no one felt responsible for them. There were numbers for suicide helplines listed in the back of every book.
Whisper, a newer anonymous posting app, launched a non-profit called “Your Voice.” When a poster on Whisper makes a suicidal threat, they are immediately flagged and their Whisper is replaced with a message providing them with information on where to get help.
Whisper’s Editor-In-Chief, Neetzan Zimmerman, showed me several Whispers where the poster came back after getting help:
But like PostSecret, folks who log into Whisper just to observe don’t know who is posting what. It could be your friend, yes, but it’s likely not. And, just like PostSecret, you can feel a connection without being fully involved in what you’re seeing or reading.
Secret’s website states it’s a violation of the app’s policy to, basically, ruin the experience for someone else:
But it says nothing about what happens when people make threats against themselves. That can be found in the “Community” tab of Secret’s site. This rule does not seem to be a violation of the app’s policy. In other words, it won’t get you kicked off the app if you make a suicide threat. A spokesperson for Secret was unavailable for comment.
When you read an anonymous suicide threat that is presented hand-in-hand with confirmation that — in some capacity — you know the person who wrote the message, there’s a sense of urgency that cannot be relinquished to a team of strangers running an app.
Basic empathy taught us as young kids that if someone we know was planning to harm themselves or others, we should immediately confide in a trustworthy adults. Now that we’re the adults, we’re supposed to pass the responsibility over to developers and coders and entrepreneurs and hope for the best.
It doesn’t seem right, and it surely doesn’t feel like enough.
We know technology isn’t going away. And platforms like Whisper and Secret were created with only good intentions; to give people an outlet, free of judgement, that they may have never had before.
But it also seems that with the creation of so many apps that exist to bring us together, there should be a better way to bring us together in times when it may count the most.
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