Is there any form of social media that doesn’t cause some sort of uneasiness? Twitter attracts trolls, Instagram influencers make you feel terrible about your non-photogenic life, Facebook is the breeding ground of FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out and if none of these were enough to cause full-fledged depression and anxiety, welcome to the age of Sarahah.

We have expressed our desperate need for validation in public for so long that a private messaging app which “helps people self-develop by receiving constructive anonymous feedback” – Sarahah’s description on the app store – feels harmless. Yet as the deluge of Sarahah screenshots shared in the past few weeks across social media timelines have shown – “private” only means that which is not outrageous or flattering enough to be shared. How else should we live our lives online, seeking validation from near-total strangers?

Being anonymous online can be freeing for all kinds of people, and Indians love doling out advice to near-total strangers – so its no surprise that Sarahah held the number one position on the Apple App store in 30 countries and is now gaining serious traction in India. But while receiving messages may be exciting, traumatic or even as Tawfiq hopes, constructive – what is the strange thrill that people get from sending anonymous messages, that they cannot hope to find in real life?

How it works

Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, the Saudi programmer who made Sarahah saw the app as a feedback service meant for the workplace, a virtual forum for sincere criticism. Tawfiq put it on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store and claims that the site garnered more than 270 million views and 20 million users in just a few weeks. This makes Sarahah more popular than other flash-in-the-pan public apps like Whisper or YikYak and Secret.

Sarahah allows you to receive private and anonymous messages from anyone with your profile details. The app’s interface is basic and clean. You need an email address to register along with a unique user name. Once you share your profile name on your social media network and responses start coming in, you can check your inbox and flag, delete, or favourite messages, even block senders. To send a message you simply search for a contact’s username. The website wants you to have a positive experience – it provides cues like “Leave a constructive message :)” or “Thank you for your honesty :)” once you send a message. But as users have shown, this is not always the case.

What it does

Within a few months, app reviews online have begun to speak about how Sarahah is aiding and abetting cyber bullying, flagrant racism, sexual intimidation and even rape and death threats, particularly to a vulnerable population of minors and women online. It should come as no surprise that the same abuse that is rampant on Twitter (which also allows anonymous profiles) should show up on Sarahah too.

An anonymous user on Sarahah asks the recipient of the message to convert to Hinduism so they can "become more beautiful".
An anonymous user on Sarahah asks the recipient of the message to convert to Hinduism so they can "become more beautiful".

There are also positive sides to Sarahah that don’t make it into reports. If the social media shares are anything to go by, anonymity is also enabling confessions of unrequited love, admiration and approval – almost a discreet, conservative version of Tinder. A popular social media blogger recently Tweeted her desire to connect with the mystery messengers who’ve expressed a desire for friendship over Sarahah.

Receiving messages from strangers on the app felt a bit like being at a masked ball – I was left wondering which half-familiar near-stranger posted the wildly seductive message, who it was that complimented my hair, who was curious about my next book and who said those unmentionable things with such flavour that I had to laugh. I was also spammed, then flummoxed by a political message.

But it was when I posted messages to others as an anonymous Sarahah user that I really felt the full force of what makes Sarahah so addictive, so popular and so incredibly complex.

Giving as good as you get

Most religions and philosophies remind us that giving is better than receiving, but on Sarahah, the giving is also without consequence – unlike the receiving. In an age of digital over-saturation, when so much of our socialising takes place online and our sense of self is reflected and refracted by screens in digital mediums – is it possible that true honesty, like mercy, in Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice, blesses both the giver and the receiver? Can creator Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq’s vision be realistic? Or do we all descend into chaos by being the meanest version of ourselves when no one is looking?

I would stand by everything I posted on people’s Sarahah profiles – but I’m not entirely sure what my sneak-attacks, however well-meaning, say about me. Did I want to have the last word on an old conversation that still rankled? Did I need closure? Did I mean to open an old wound? Sarahah gave me the chance to experience to have my say and walk away but it left me with a feeling of having shattered an unspoken rule of social interaction.

We let social media into our personal lives without much examination, and it brings insecurities and freedoms that we have not yet fully begun to grasp because this measure of online activity and intimate access is unprecedented. After all, messaging boards don’t hurt people, people do. Surely choosing to be use an app should be just that – an opportunity to enlarge our experience. Except, it’s worthwhile to remember that technology changes our world not to promote happiness, as much as to promote the next new thing. As we navigate the worlds of Sarahah and Snapchat and Facebook or whatever the next app throws at us, I’d add only the advice of a revelatory renaissance poet, who imagined many things, but not the age of Sarahah: ‘to thine own self be true.’

Karishma Attari is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She runs a workshop series called Shakespeare for Dummies and is currently writing a novel titled The Want Diaries. Her Twitter handle is @KarishmaWrites.