Society is showcasing its best and worst side via apps that anonymously broadcast thoughts to a group of strangers.
Increasingly popular anonymous apps, such as Secret, Whisper, and YikYak, where users can disclose their deepest thoughts and engage with each other without revealing their identity, have come under fire for their propensity to elicit vitriol about people and specific individuals.
Now, Melbourne-duo Dean Serroni and Duncan Turner are hoping to counter the wave of hate with their app Vent. Featuring a cheery colour scheme, users can notify the online community about whether they're feeling furious (purple), annoyed (orange), irritated (green), angry (red), or calm (blue). Users can sign up to the app simply with an email and a picture, or by linking it to their Facebook profile (although no data is shared).
Serroni said the app was originally conceived last August so people could vent about topical issues, without damaging their perfectly manicured Facebook profiles.
The idea came to Serroni as he and his mates sat in a cafe discussing the Essendon Football Club drugs scandal and former prime minister Julia Gillard.
He envisaged Vent would initially find an audience among stranded commuters, but once they launched the app, on New Year's Day, Mr Serroni discovered that users, who were mostly female, were not simply having a spray but sharing their experiences of personal suffering.
More surprisingly, users were emotionally supporting each other.
"There are people who were saying things like 'I don't need a therapist,' and 'the support I'm getting here is helping me through my problems'," Serroni said.
"On apps like Whisper, sometimes the posts can really degenerate into people talking about junky discussions about sex and being horny ... Full-blown negativity will not sustain a product over the long-term.
"We want to take the concept of 'misery enjoys company' and foster positive outcomes."
About 3000 people are using Vent, and some of the most popular posts touch on subjects such as "JoJo" being annoyed at kids who cry at the shop, and "ticka" feeling calm "in a place where she can be fully opinionated and outspoken, sans judgment and meddling", and he said that the behaviour of users supporting each other had a compounding effect: users who have received support via the app as a result go around and support others.
At the moment, he and his co-founder, who is now based in Britain, moderate the content but over time they hope that a Wikipedia-style self-regulation model flourishes, where active users in the community will maintain standards.
Secret recently announced it had raised US$25 million in funding, as it aims to broaden its appeal and keep pace with Whisper, which has secured US$39 million from investors. Secret will allow people to login with their Facebook credentials, in order to see anonymous posts by their friends and their friends' friends. Previously it limited the visibility of content to people in an address book.
Silicon Valley investor Mark Suster, who was forced to login to Secret when one unidentified user called him a "fraud", said anonymity apps bred intolerance.
"It’s like racism or prejudice," Suster wrote on his blog.
"It’s very easy to hate a group with whom you never interact and when you live in a big city where there are many ethnicities and sexualities you realise we are all just human. Same wants. Same needs. Same goals. Even [venture capitalists]."
Serroni doesn't believe that Vent will eliminate cyber bullying and trolling but hopes the app can provide a safe place for people to reveal their thoughts, and, essentially, promote civility.
"We don't want other users to feel judged and be comfortable posting whatever they feel."
- The Age