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Opinion: Online anonymity won’t promote honesty

Below the Fold

Posted online

I’m afraid to try Sarahah.

Right now, half of you are thinking, “I don’t blame you,” and the other half are thinking, “Sara-what?”

If you’re not in with the in-crowd, Sarahah is the hottest thing to hit the internet since Snapchat (which, I know, some of you have still yet to master).

Debuting in June in the United States, the app shot to the top of Apple’s App Store charts  and has remained there ever since. It has tens of millions of downloads worldwide and has yet to show signs of slowing.

So what exactly is Sarahah? The app’s tagline reads innocently enough: “Get honest feedback from your coworkers and friends.”

What’s there to be afraid of? It’s anonymous and we all know anonymity and the internet go together about as well as whipped cream and seaweed.

So how does Sarahah work exactly? Users create a profile with a few simple bits of information and Sarahah produces your unique web address: username.Sarahah.com. Now, you’re free to share it anywhere to receive anonymous, “constructive” feedback from friends and family. The messages come to your Sarahah inbox as simple lines of text, only recording a date sent – no other information. There is no way to reply.

Much of the platform’s overwhelming success so far can be attributed to its link with Snapchat. Several users take the app’s recommendation of including a link on their Snapchat username. The short comments also make perfect sharable content for other social media apps. You may have noticed the pictures of blue speech bubbles popping up across Facebook. Tweets with #Sarahah also are flooding Twitter.

This may seem nothing but a voyeuristic flash in the pan for millennials or just a chance to ramp up the drama in young lives, so why am I writing about this for a business journal?

Because before being co-opted by youth, it was intended for a business audience.

Sarahah’s creator, Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, initially built the app so people could give anonymous feedback in the workplace without fear of retribution from their bosses. The app’s name in Arabic loosely translates to candor or honesty.

There are good intentions here. Working on a big project? Give co-workers the ability to provide open feedback while remaining anonymous: “Enhance your areas of strength and strengthen areas for improvement,” as the app claims.

But even in a professional setting, that premise is fraught with peril. The internet can be a mean place.

Night after night, the news reports on teens who’ve taken their own lives after cyberbullying becomes too much. The first lady announced she would lead a campaign against cyberbullying, but she can’t even stop the mean tweets coming out of her own house. Closer to home in our office, some of the comments the newspaper receives on Facebook make me cringe.

Just the other day, I invited a block of people to like the Springfield Business Journal Facebook page and received a lovely message back from one gentleman. In totality it read: “Suck it.”

And his full name was attached to that message. I looked at his profile, saw pictures of his kids and I know he went to Branson High School.

But imagine what people would say online when there is no retribution.

The internet has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Things you would never say to a person’s face become commonplace when that personal connection is lost. We as a society don’t need another app that allows hatred to spread.

Are there nice, affirming and constructive messages sent on Sarahah? I have no doubt. But I also have no doubt good intentions often are lost on the internet.

If you can’t talk to your co-workers honestly about a project, maybe it’s time to find a new job. Sounds like you don’t have the best boss to begin with.

Maybe Sarahah will make us remember that old saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” But somehow, I doubt it.

As Sarahah says after you send a message: Thank you for your honesty.

Features Editor Emily Letterman can be reached at eletterman@sbj.net.

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