It seems that every few years a new anonymous messaging platform comes out; quickly gains a fan base, investment and media attention; then crashes and burns. Usually the cause is a combination of rampant bullying, intimidation or misinformation that flourishes within the platform.
And yet the apps keep coming. One of the latest entrants is NGL, which invites users to ask anonymous questions and comments from their followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere. NGL, the app’s website explains“stands for don’t lie.”
In June and the first half of July, NGL was downloaded about 3.2 million times in the United States, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics company. It was the 10th most downloaded app in Apple and Google Play stores in June, Sensor Tower said.
“Anonymity has always been the secret sauce,” said Sherry Turklea, an MIT professor who studies people’s relationships with technology. She said the desire for anonymous self-expression was nothing new, citing the confessional in some churches as an example.
But, she added, the desire for anonymity was never about anonymity itself. After all, in many cases, the promise of anonymity is false, or at best qualified: the priest often knows who the confessor is, and apps that collect and distribute secrets simultaneously collect their users’ private data. Launched in November, NGL goes even further, offering users hints about their respondents for $9.99 a week.
“Anonymity is a way of opening the door to a sense of space and permission, to a liminal space between realms where you can express something true or speak something true that you can’t for the rest of your life,” said Professor Turkle, the author of “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.”
Harold David, 34, a fitness company manager in New York, recently tried NGL. “It’s nice to see what people will say if it’s anonymous,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to know someone’s secret thoughts about them?”
He said he had seen a few friends using the app and expected “more rude or lewd” comments. But, he said, “it was actually a warm stream of reactions about people’s experiences with me, so it was a really nice surprise.”
The experience of Haras Shirley, 26, a school employee in Indianpolis, was not so positive. Shirley received about a dozen responses after posting a link to NGL on Facebook and Instagram.
“I thought there would be more questions about my transition, and I could provide some insight into how to properly ask those questions,” he said. Instead, he said, most questions were superficial, what his favorite color is or what was the last thing he ate.
He understands the appeal of the app. “These apps give you the idea that people are interested in who you are and want to know more about you,” he said. But it’s not for him. “This is really aimed at middle and high school kids,” he said.
As quickly as the app has risen, it has encountered criticism.
Anonymous messaging platforms such as ASKfm, Yik Yak, Yolo and LMK have long struggled to contain bullying, intimidation and threats of violence. Posts on Yik Yak led several schools to evacuate students in response to bomb and gun threats. Yolo and LMK, anonymous messaging apps, are being sued by the mother of a teen who committed suicide (the apps were integrated into Snapchat, whose parent company, Snap, was initially a defendant in the lawsuit but is no longer).
Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, said people on the Internet assume that the opinions of a few represent a large portion of the population.
“Anonymity,” he said, “makes this worse.” As a result, if someone leaves an anonymous comment saying that your haircut is ugly, for example, you start to think that everyone thinks your haircut is ugly.
NGL’s website says the Community Guidelines will be “coming soon” and 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 email requests for comment.
Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center, pointed out that “you don’t have to use trigger words to be unkind.”
“If someone starts using racist comments or whatever they can get past the AI, you can block them,” said Dr. Rutledge. “But it’s hard to draw boundaries around the comments that undermine how you feel about yourself.”
When Reggie Baril, 28, a musician in Los Angeles, posted an 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 a few comments out loud during a telephone interview. “You could be so successful, but your attitude is terrible, you don’t make it,” he said. “I’m not sure if Reggie would like Reggie in 2015.” Another called him “a social climber.”
He was surprised by the acidity. “I’m not a confrontational person at all,” he said. “I like to joke, to be crazy and stupid.” He decided not to take the comments personally. “I read a lot of uncertainty in the subtext,” he said.
In online reviews, NGL users have said that the app is giving them false questions and comments, a phenomenon that technology-focused publications including TechCrunch say they have replicated with their own tests. It is not clear whether these responses are generated by the app or by bots.
Johnny G. Lloyd, 32, a playwright living in New York, downloaded NGL as a way to increase engagement on his Instagram ahead of the premiere of his new play. In the three times he used it, he noticed some strange entries.
“I got a question that said, ‘Which girl did you text last?'” he said. “This doesn’t matter at all in my life. That’s barking at the wrong tree.” Another message was more cryptic. “It said ‘you know what you’ve done,'” said Mr. Lloyd. “It was clearly for a younger audience.”
When Clayton Wong, 29, an editorial assistant in Los Angeles, tried NGL, he received an unexpected “confession” that prompted him to search online for a specific love song. Mr. Wong was immediately suspicious. “I didn’t like the song very much,” he said. “If this person knew me, they would know this isn’t something I would love.”
After he passed through the comments on the song on YouTube, he realized that dozens of people had received an anonymous “confession” of feelings that led them to the same video.
A musician friend of Mr. Baril, Johan Lenox, expected a “chaotic” NGL experience, but got the opposite. He was surprised that people wanted to hide their identities when they asked questions like what he does after performing or what it’s like to be a musician. He wondered what the point of the app was.
“If you want to talk to someone, how are you going to achieve it by sending anonymous notes?” he said. He thinks NGL will suffer the fate of other apps that disappeared as quickly as they appeared. “No one will talk about it in a month,” he said.
Alain Delaqueriere research contributed.