This falls into the category of, “just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.”
Over the weekend I read a PandoDaily story about how stupid and reckless people can be in the quest for technological “innovation.” This time, the stupidity comes from a Canadian firm that had flown under the radar for a while. “Hiding up in Canada, Truth has mostly flown under the tech press radar,” Carmel Deamicis wrote. “Founder Ali Saheli claims he’s deliberately avoiding industry coverage. He’s going after the teenage market and they don’t read tech press.”
[vision_pullquote style=”4″ align=”right”] “We’ve seen enough of the Web to know that when people can be anonymous, hate follows.” – Michael Carney [/vision_pullquote]
I’d be deliberately avoiding industry press too if I were him. In fact, I’d be avoiding any press at all, even press directed at the target market he seeks, because I’d know in my heart that my app was going to cause people pain sooner than later. You’d have to have been living in a cave without Internet access for the last 10 years, not to understand that arming teenagers with an app that allows them to specifically target another person with an anonymous message, even if that person doesn’t have the app, is more than just a bad idea. It is stupid and reckless.
“Ugh, what a terrible use of technology,” Jacy Riedmann wrote in the comments on Facebook on Saturday. “Like people need more ways to hide behind a screen and use words like weapons.” Exactly. It’s one thing to post anonymous messages to other anonymous people who have actively sought out an app that makes that possible. It’s quite another to target people with a form of spam that is rife with potential dangers.
Who Would Fund This Stupidity?
Fearing this might just be a publicity stunt designed to gain attention, despite the founder’s claims otherwise, I wasn’t going to write about this today. Providing this idiocy with more attention, even negative attention, might just help the founders raise the funding from Silicon Valley they are apparently seeking. But I decided to write anyway. Why? I have a fundamental belief that most people are sane when it comes to making decisions about what technology should and should not enable us to do.
I have a fundamental belief that most people are not stupid and reckless, and that perhaps a stronger negative message might be heard by the decision makers at the venture firms who invested $10 million in Secret, $54 million in Whisper, $800,000 in Rumr, and $6.35 million in Lulu. And I hope that if they do hear, they’ll not give a dime to a company that would be so reckless and stupid. Yes, a boy can dream.
In the meantime, it appears that taking actions against it are simple enough. I’m thankful for two concerned parents who helped me test over the weekend. I downloaded the app and sent an anonymous message to my wife. As promised, it showed up on her cell phone without her having to download the app. The phone number it came from was 605-285-4879. I then sent Laura Scheer a message and asked her to block the number after she received it. Again, the message came in to her from 605-285-4879. Then Jeremy Blanton helped out by sending one to his wife. He is on the other side of the country and it was also sent from 605-285-4879. So, it’s simple enough to block that number in advance, but on the iPhone you’ll need to add it to your contact list first.
To add a contact to the block list in iOS 7 follow these instructions:
1. Navigate to Settings -> Phone (or Messages, or FaceTime) -> Blocked
2. Touch Add New…
3. Select the contact you wish to block from the list
Once you’ve added that number to your block list they will be prevented from contacting you with phone calls, iMessages, SMS text messages or FaceTime. If you’re child has been a target of cyberbullying in the past, I’d take preemptive action and go ahead and block 605-285-4879 right now. And if anyone has seen a different number associated with the messages from this app, feel free to post it in the comments.
So, to anyone in the VC community who might stumble upon this post, do us all a favor and keep your wallet in your pocket. Some apps shouldn’t exist at all.
Drew Meyers says
You and I agree on this, for sure.
Jeff Turner says
We tend to agree on a number of topics.
Jason Phelps says
Well done, Jeff. Words can be dangerous weapons or beautiful instruments.
Jeff Turner says
So can app developers.
Gregg Borodaty says
I agree with all of your high level points on the VC model (which is a rant for another time), “just because you can doesn’t means you should”, and putting anonymous commenting into the hands of teens is dangerous, as are many other items in the hands of teens.
However, let me challenge your thinking a bit. Shouldn’t we be able to permit some level of anonymity on the internet in order to protect people like whistle-blowers and crime victims?. Yes, people need to be educated on how to use it, and there should be consequences for those who abuse it, preferably driven by societal norms not laws and regulation. I don’t have a good answer, for what the consequences should be, but I think you see where I’m going with this.
In the meantime, I agree that preventing people or services that abuse anonymity starts with simple actions. However, this smacks of a classic “whack-a-mole” problem. We know the technology is there, so there’s a good chance it will just come back, either in a different form or embedded as a feature in another product.
I suppose my point is that we could spend our efforts going after one service at a time, but, as you point out, we need to spend our efforts addressing the source of the issue. Otherwise, services like this will just keep coming back.
Jeff Turner says
“Shouldn’t we be able to permit some level of anonymity on the internet in order to protect people like whistle-blowers and crime victims?”
Yes, but that is a different issue all together. In an open context, I can make anonymous statements that the world can see and react to. I don’t think being able to anonymously send a text to another person falls into that category. There is a privacy issue on the other side of the equation. One of the commenters in the app store made the claim that this might even be illegal for “using alternate texting to harass people without the know who the sender is.” I don’t know if that is true, but it feels like it should be.
The anonymity that is required for whistle blowers and crime victims does not require this kind of an app. And how can social norms play a role in a situation where a single person sends a message to another single person who has no idea who they are? Is Truth going to give up my anonymity in a situation where I’ve just been extremely mean? I’ve read that all 50 states have laws that explicitly address electronic forms of stalking, harassment or cyberbullying, but how do they get enforced in this situation? How strong a line does each draw that would give an individual being bullied the confidence to act against an unknown aggressor. It’s one thing to take action to stop someone who you can identify, it’s quiet another to battle a seemingly invisible foe.
And, yes, it does feel like “whack-a mole.” And it will likely rear it’s ugly head. This is exactly how Rumr began and they pivoted away from this. If Truth decides to move on in this direction, others will follow as well. The only hope is for those who fund their growth to stop doing so. I’m not sure I hold out much hope for that, unfortunately.
Gregg Borodaty says
Your reply has me spinning in all sorts of directions that I could engage with you on, but I am going to save it for another time. Plus, I realize that in a debate using words, I will surely lose to the master 🙂
By the way, I completely agree with your end comments. It’s a shame that greed and the desire to make a quick buck can overpower doing the right thing.