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NGL is an app that will tell you what you don’t want to hear

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It seems like every few years a new anonymous messaging platform comes on the market; rapidly gaining fan base, investment and media attention; then freezes and burns. Usually the cause is some combination of unchecked bullying, harassment, or misinformation that thrives on the platform.

And yet, applications continue to appear. One of the latest innovations is NGL, which invites users to request anonymous questions and comments from their followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else. NGL, as explained on the app’s website, “means don’t lie.”

During June and the first half of July, NGL was downloaded approximately 3.2 million times in the US, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics company. It was the 10th most downloaded app in the Apple and Google Play stores in June, according to Sensor Tower.

“Anonymity has always been the secret sauce,” said Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies people’s relationship with technology. She said the desire for anonymous expression was nothing new, pointing to confessionals in some churches as an example.

But, she added, the pursuit of anonymity was never about anonymity itself. After all, in many cases the promise of anonymity is false or at best limited – the priest often knows who the confessor is, and applications that collect and distribute secrets simultaneously collect the personal data of their users. In fact, NGL, which launched in November, goes one step further, offering users hints about their respondents for $9.99 per week.

“Anonymity is a way to open the door to a sense of space and resolution, to a borderline space between realms where you can express something true or say something true that you won’t be able to do for the rest of your life,” said Professor Turkle. . Author of Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.

Harold David, 34, an administrator for a fitness company in New York, recently tried NGL. “It’s nice to see what people will say when it’s anonymous,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to know someone’s secret thoughts about them?”

He said he saw several friends using the app and expected “more rude or more obscene” comments. But, he says, “it was actually a flood of warm feedback about what people had experienced with me, so it was a really nice surprise.”

The experience of 26-year-old Haras Shirley, an employee of the school department in Indianapolis, was not so positive. Mr. Shirley received about a dozen responses after posting the NGL link on Facebook and Instagram.

“I figured there would be more questions about my transition and I could provide some insight into the right way to ask those questions,” he said. Instead, he said, most of the questions were superficial, asking what his favorite color was or what he ate last.

He understands the appeal of the application. “These apps give you an idea that people are interested in who you are and want to know more about you,” he said. But it’s not for him. “It’s really geared towards kids in middle and high school,” he said.

Just as quickly as the app took off, it faced criticism.

Anonymous messaging platforms such as ASKfm, Yik Yak, Yolo and LMK have long struggled to contain bullying, harassment and threats of violence. Reports of Yik Yak have led several schools to evacuate students in response to bomb and shooting threats. Yolo and LMK, anonymous messaging apps, were sued by the mother of a teen who committed suicide (the apps were integrated into Snapchat, whose parent company, Snap, was originally a defendant in the lawsuit but no longer is).

Secret, another anonymous messaging app, shut down in 2015 despite investment from big Silicon Valley players. In a Medium post announcing the company’s closure, David Bittow, one of its founders, wrote that anonymity is “the ultimate double-edged sword.”

Mitch Prinstein, chief scientist at the American Psychological Association, said online people assume that the opinions of a few represent a significant portion of the population.

“Anonymity,” he said, “makes things worse.” As a result, if someone leaves an anonymous comment about, for example, that your haircut is ugly, you start to think that everyone thinks your haircut is ugly.

NGL’s website reports that its community guidelines are “coming soon” and that the app uses “world-class AI-assisted content moderation.” It directs users to the website of Hive Moderation, a company that uses software to filter text, images, and audio into categories such as bullying and violence. NGL did not respond to email requests for comment.

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, noted that “you don’t have to use trigger words to be unkind.”

“If someone starts using racial slurs or anything else that they can bypass the AI, you can block them,” Dr. Rutledge said. “But it’s hard to draw a line around comments that undermine your self-image.”

When Reggie Baryl, 28, a musician from Los Angeles, posted a link to NGL to his 12,000 Instagram followers, he expected questions about his career. “I was very wrong,” he said. Of the 130 responses he received, there was “more hate than absence”.

He read a couple of comments aloud during a phone interview. “You could be that successful, but your attitude is terrible, you won’t succeed,” he said. “I’m not sure the 2015 Reggie will like the 2022 Reggie.” Another called him a “social climber”.

He was surprised by the acidity. “I am not a conflict person in the least,” he said. “I love to joke around and be silly and goofy.” He decided not to take the comments personally. “I read a lot of uncertainty in the subtext,” he said.

In online reviews, NGL users say the app serves them with fake questions and comments, a phenomenon that tech publications including TechCrunch say they replicated in their own tests. It is not clear if these responses are generated by the app or by bots.

Johnny J. Lloyd, 32, a playwright based in New York, uploaded NGL to boost his Instagram presence ahead of the premiere of his new play. In the three times he used it, he noticed several odd performances.

“I had one question that was like, ‘Which girl have you texted lately?'” he said. “It doesn’t matter at all in my life. It’s barking up the wrong tree.” The other message was more cryptic. “It said, ‘You know what you did,'” Mr. Lloyd said. “It was clearly for a younger audience.”

When 29-year-old Clayton Wong, an assistant editor in Los Angeles, tried out NGL, he received an unexpected “confession” in which he was told to search the Internet for a specific love song. Mr. Wong immediately became suspicious. “I don’t think this song is very good,” he said. “If this person knew me, they would know that this is not what I would be doing.”

Scrolling through the YouTube comments for the song, he realized that dozens of people had received anonymous “confessions” of feelings that directed them to the same video.

A musician friend of Mr. Baryl, Johan Lenox, expected a “chaotic” NGL experience, but got the opposite. He was surprised that people wanted to hide their identity when asked questions such as what he does after performing or what it’s like to be a musician. This made him think about the meaning of the application.

“If you want to talk to someone, how are you going to do it by sending anonymous notes?” he said. He believes that NGL will suffer the fate of other applications that disappeared as quickly as they appeared. “No one will be talking about this again in a month,” he said.

Alain Delaquerière contributed to research.

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