Around this time last year, Sarahah was experiencing the App Store equivalent of a box office breakout.
The messaging app jumped to the top of the downloads chart and quickly earned cred among a discerning Gen Z crowd. As of last summer, its popularity was still soaring. But if you search the App Store or Google Play for Sarahah today, you'll find no trace of it. It's as if the app never existed, leaving behind only a shell of a website.
Sarahah’s function explains both its rapid rise and demise. The app’s draw was its basis in anonymity: After creating a profile, users received a link to share on Snapchat. Anyone who clicked that link could leave a message, without so much as a username attached to it. Sarahah was an open invitation to say anything, which seems appealing, but is also prime for misuse. Complete anonymity behind a screen, studies show, encourages people’s worst behavior to surface.
All of this seems newly relevant now, because of a similar, increasingly popular app called Lipsi. It is currently ranked 28th on the App Store, ahead of standbys such as Google, Venmo, and Tinder, and has risen as high as 15th in the past week. Lipsi (a combination of the words "lips" and "let's see") is almost identical to Sarahah — you sign up and get a link to share on Snapchat or Instagram. You can send anonymous messages to anyone with a Lipsi account.
Some 75% of Lipsi’s users are female, according to Matthew Segal, 23, who launched the app in beta in 2014 while he was a student at Yale. Segal declined to disclose the app’s total daily users, but said there are 50,000 to 60,000 new members joining Lipsi daily. Its growth is all word of mouth — the founder says no money has been spent on marketing thus far.
That’s a smart warning to side-step some of the problems Sarahah reportedly faced. Then again, how many people do you know who actually read privacy policies? That's where another important factor, the inadequacy of which has probably led to the downfall of earlier anonymous messaging apps, comes into play: Content moderation. Segal says Lipsi has "state-of-the-art AI" to help filter content. Still, he acknowledged the difficulty of this, adding, "There’s a fine line between filtering content and creating a platform where users can hardly have a conversation because our rules are too stringent. We aim to create a platform that promotes free speech, while setting rules for the security of our community."
An anonymous messaging app knowing your sexual preference raises alarm bells, especially during a time of heightened awareness about what information you’re making available and to whom. When asked about this part of the policy, Segal clarifies that information besides first name, last name, and email login is not currently collected, but the app “may explore the idea of connecting people based on these details” in the future, at which point users would be asked permission. If Lipsi wants to continue gaining traction in 2018, it would do well to rethink this part of its policy.
For now, though, some users seem more concerned about the potential for abuse. Myah Page, 20, a student in Baton Rouge, said she first learned about Lipsi through Twitter. She primarily uses it to send positive messages to friends to counteract "some of the horrible things people have said." Still, she doesn't see herself continuing to use the app because she believes cyberbullying and stalking will become a bigger problem as the app grows. Page has already experienced a degree of this herself: "I get super weird questions from unknown people that creep me out."
While apps offering complete anonymity are certainly a novelty when they pop up in the App Store, the reason they’re attractive is also why they always seem to have a limited lifespan. (Remember Yik Yak?) People who want to say random (and sometimes creepy) things are going to be a part of the community, and that’s a problem — not just for women, but for everyone on social media.
This isn't to say anonymous messaging apps don't have any useful applications. Evan Asano, the CEO of MediaKix, a social media marketing agency, says the apps could help larger influencers get honest feedback — something this class of social media stars craves. An app like Lipsi, he says, could offer a happy-medium between the glowing support big-name influencers are used to getting from fans and overly critical comments from trolls, if it's able to filter out the latter.
For now, Lipsi is winning downloads and experiencing its honeymoon period on the App Store. But if it wants to have staying power, it will need to show its usefulness and prove it can keep the trolls at bay with its AI technology. Then, and only then, does it stand a chance at breaking the anonymous messaging app curse.