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Sendit, Yolo, NGL: Anonymous Social Apps Are Taking Over Once More, but They Aren’t Without Risks

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Have you ever told a stranger a secret about yourself online? Did you feel a certain kind of freedom doing so, specifically because the context was removed from your everyday life? Personal disclosure and anonymity have long been a potent mix laced through our online interactions. We’ve recently seen this through the resurgence of anonymous question apps targeting young people, including Sendit and NGL (which stands for “not gonna lie”). The latter has been installed 15 million times globally, according to recent reports.

These apps can be linked to users’ Instagram and Snapchat accounts, allowing them to post questions and receive anonymous answers from followers.

Although they’re trending at the moment, it’s not the first time we’ve seen them. Early examples include ASKfm, launched in 2010, and Spring.me, launched in 2009 (as “Fromspring”).

These platforms have a troublesome history. As a sociologist of technology, I’ve studied human-technology encounters in contentious environments. Here’s my take on why anonymous question apps have once again taken the internet by storm, and what their impact might be.

Why are they so popular? We know teens are drawn to social platforms. These networks connect them with their peers, support their journeys towards forming identity, and provide them space for experimentation, creativity and bonding.

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We also know they manage online disclosures of their identity and personal life through a technique sociologists call “audience segregation”, or “code switching”. This means they’re likely to present themselves differently online to their parents than they are to their peers.

Digital cultures have long used online anonymity to separate real-world identities from online personas, both for privacy and in response to online surveillance. And research has shown online anonymity enhances self-disclosure and honesty.

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For young people, having online spaces to express themselves away from the adult gaze is important. Anonymous question apps provide this space. They promise to offer the very things young people seek: opportunities for self-expression and authentic encounters.

Risky by design

We now have a generation of kids growing up with the internet. On one hand, young people are hailed as pioneers of the digital age – and on the other, we fear for them as its innocent victims.

A recent TechCrunch article chronicled the rapid uptake of anonymous question apps by young users, and raised concerns about transparency and safety.

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NGL exploded in popularity this year, but hasn’t solved the issue of hate speech and bullying. Anonymous chat app YikYak was shut down in 2017 after becoming littered with hateful speech – but has since returned.

These apps are designed to hook users in. They leverage certain platform principles to provide a highly engaging experience, such as interactivity and gamification (wherein a form of “play” is introduced into non-gaming platforms).

Also, given their experimental nature, they’re a good example of how social media platforms have historically been developed with a “move fast and break things” attitude. This approach, first articulated by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has arguably reached its use-by date.

Breaking things in real life is not without consequence. Similarly, breaking away from important safeguards online is not without social consequences. Rapidly developed social apps can have harmful consequences for young people, including cyberbullying, cyberdating abuse, image-based abuse and even online grooming.

In May 2021, Snapchat suspended integrated anonymous messaging apps Yolo and LMK, after being sued by the distraught parents of teens who committed suicide after being bullied through the apps.

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Yolo’s developers overestimated the capacity of their automated content moderation to identify harmful messages.

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In the wake of these suspensions, Sendit soared through the app store charts as Snapchat users sought a replacement.

Snapchat then banned anonymous messaging from third-party apps in March this year, in a bid to limit bullying and harassment. Yet it appears Sendit can still be linked to Snapchat as a third-party app, so the implementation conditions are variable.

Are kids being manipulated by chatbots? It also seems these apps may feature automated chatbots parading as anonymous responders to prompt interactions – or at least that’s what staff at Tech Crunch found.

Although chatbots can be harmless (or even helpful), problems arise if users can’t tell whether they’re interacting with a bot or a person. At the very least it’s likely the apps are not effectively screening bots out of conversations.

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Users can’t do much either. If responses are anonymous (and don’t even have a profile or post history linked to them), there’s no way to know if they’re communicating with a real person or not.

It’s difficult to confirm whether bots are widespread on anonymous question apps, but we’ve seen them cause huge problems on other platforms – opening avenues for deception and exploitation.

For example, in the case of Ashley Madison, a dating and hookup platform that was hacked in 2015, bots were used to chat with human users to keep them engaged. These bots used fake profiles created by Ashley Madison employees.

What can we do?

Despite all of the above, some research has found many of the risks teens experience online pose only brief negative effects, if any. This suggests we may be overemphasising the risks young people face online.

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At the same time, implementing parental controls to mitigate online risk is often in tension with young people’s digital rights.

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So the way forward isn’t simple. And just banning anonymous question apps isn’t the solution.

Rather than avoid anonymous online spaces, we’ll need to trudge through them together – all the while demanding as much accountability and transparency from tech companies as we can.

For parents, there are some useful resources on how to help children and teens navigate tricky online environments in a sensible way.


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Musk Bid for More Data on Twitter Bot Accounts Denied by Judge

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Elon Musk was denied access to additional documents about Twitter’s internal measure of robot and spam accounts after a judge concluded the company already disclosed enough of the information as part of the billionaire’s legal fight over a scuttled takeover. Twitter has “done enough” in handing over documents about the so-called mDAU — a metric used to survey human users of the social media platform, Delaware Chancery Judge Kathaleen St. J. McCormick ruled Friday. Musk had sought more information to bolster his bid to cancel a $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3.5 lakh crore) buyout of the company.

Musk and his lawyers repeatedly accused Twitter of seeking to hide crucial documents and witnesses as they ramp up for an October 17 trial on whether the world’s richest person can legitimately walk away from the deal.

The billionaire claims the company hadn’t levelled with him about the number of spam and bot accounts among its more than 230 million users. Twitter says Musk has buyer’s remorse and his concerns are a pretext to get out of a deal.

McCormick also denied Musk’s request Twitter officials conduct further searches of the files under the terms “user-active minutes,” (UAM) or “stickiness,” two ways of measuring how long users stay on the platform.

Both sides have issued a fusillade of subpoenas and deposition requests to banks, investors and advisers involved in the teetering transaction. McCormick has been forced to rule on about a half-dozen disputes over document disclosures and other discovery issues.

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Meanwhile, the judge also appointed Chris Sontchi, a retired bankruptcy judge, to serve as a special master to oversee discovery disputes. The Wilmington, Delaware-based Sontchi now works as a mediator and also serves as a judge on the Singapore International Commercial Court.

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© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.


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Ten Things Elon Musk’s Texts Reveal About the Twitter Deal

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A new trove of text messages between Elon Musk and Twitter executives, close friends, potential investors and Silicon Valley bros sheds light on how a $44 billion (nearly Rs. 3,58,100 crore) deal by the world’s richest person to buy the social media company came about — and ended up in court.

The texts show who wanted to be part of the buyout and reveal the inner circle’s musings on who should run the company if Musk did come to own it. They were disclosed as part of Twitter‘s lawsuit to make Musk follow through on his $54.20 (nearly Rs. 4,400)-per-share offer, which is slated to go to trial in Delaware Chancery Court next month.

Among the many texts, Musk discloses that he “has a minor case of COVID” in late March, is usually “up until ~3 am” and no longer has a personal assistant.

Here are 10 glimpses behind the scenes.

1. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s former Chief Executive Officer, worked to get Musk to join the board shortly after activist investors starting agitating for change at the company in 2020.

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“I tried my hardest to get you on our board, and the board said no,” Dorsey wrote. “That’s about the time I decided I need to work to leave, as hard as it was for me.”

Dorsey is “jack jack” on Elon’s phone.

2. Musk’s relations with Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal went from friendly to frosty within a week. On April 5, Agrawal tweeted that Musk was being appointed to Twitter’s board — and got Musk’s approval for the language of the tweet.

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But by April 9, the tone had shifted dramatically. Agrawal upbraided Musk over his tweets disparaging the company.

“You are free to tweet ‘is Twitter dying’ or anything else about Twitter — but it’s my responsibility to tell you that it’s not helping me make Twitter better in the current context. I’d like to provide your perspective on the level of internal distraction right now and how it [sic] hurting our ability to do work.”

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“What did you get done this week?” Musk snapped back.

“I’m not joining the board. This is a waste of time,” he texted 40 seconds later.

“Will make an offer to take Twitter private,” he texted 15 seconds after that.

3. A few minutes later, Musk texted with Chair Bret Taylor about fixing Twitter. The texts suggest he already knew about Twitter’s bot problem, which he would later cite as a reason to abandon the deal.

“This is hard to do as a public company, as purging fake users will make the numbers look terrible, so restructuring should be done as a private company,” Musk wrote. “This is Jack’s opinion too.”

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4. On April 20, Musk texted Oracle‘s Larry Ellison.

“Any interest in participating in the Twitter deal?” he asked. Ellison said yes. Musk asked how much.

“A billion … or whatever you recommend,” Ellison replied. Musk recommended $2 billion (nearly Rs. 16,300 crore). On April 24, Ellison said, “Since you think I should come in for at least $2 billion. I’m in for $2 billion.”

5. Several of Musk’s friends had ideas on whom Musk should hire. Investor Bill Lee suggested Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital. Jason Calacanis noted that “Twitter CEO is my dream job.”

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6. Joe Rogan was a fan of the deal. “I REALLY hope you get Twitter,” the outsize podcaster texted. “If you do, we should throw a hell of a party.”

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7. Steve Jurvetson suggested Musk hire Emil Michael, the former chief business officer of Uber Technologies, and texted Michael’s LinkedIn account over.

“I don’t have a LinkedIn account,” Musk responded.

8. Gayle King of CBS asked Musk in April for an interview, saying buying Twitter was what the kids call a “gangsta move” and suggesting that Oprah Winfrey might want to join the board. King said she’d like a Twitter edit button.

“Twitter edit button is coming,” Musk responded.

9. Musk warned Calacanis against offering investment in the deal to “randos.”

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It “makes it seem like I’m desperate,” he said.

Calacanis said he only wanted to be supportive: “You know I’m ride or die brother.”

10. In March, Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto billionaire, tried to get in touch with Musk through an associate to discuss joining in a deal for Twitter. Musk appeared uninterested — and unaware of Bankman-Fried’s wealth, asking, “Does he have huge amounts of money?”

Eventually he warmed to the idea, “so long as I don’t have to have a laborious blockchain debate.”

It’s unclear if they met.

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Meta Unveils ‘Make-A-Video’ AI Text-To-Video Generator: All Details

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Meta has unveiled a new artificial intelligence system called ‘Make-A-Video’ that will allow users to generate short video clips by entering a text description of the desired scene. The announcement follows the company’s recent advancements in generative technology research, which seeks to give creators more creative control over artificially intelligent image generation. With the announcement, Meta has taken the technology a step further by including text-to-video generation capabilities apart from text-to-image. However, the company is yet to release access to users for the model.

The prompt-generated videos are five seconds or shorter and would contain no audio. However, Meta claims that a wide range of prompts is supported by the model.

Meta, while making the announcement through a blog post, stated that in a commitment to ‘open science’ it will be sharing details of the research behind the latest artificial intelligence generative technology while also confirming its plans to release a demo experience for users.

Generative AI research is pushing creative expression forward by giving people tools to quickly and easily create new content,” said Meta in a blog post announcing the work. “With just a few words or lines of text, Make-A-Video can bring imagination to life and create one-of-a-kind videos full of vivid colors and landscapes,” added the parent company to Facebook and Instagram.

In the research paper describing the model at work, the company notes that ‘Make-A-Video’ demo model utilises pairs of images, captions, and unlabeled video footage sourced from WebVid-10M and HD-VILA-100M datasets that includes stock video footage created by sites like Shutterstock and scraped from the web that together spans hundreds of thousands of hours of footage.

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to describe the work as “amazing progress,” while adding that “it’s much harder to generate video than photos, because beyond correctly generating each pixel, the system also has to predict how they’ll change over time.”

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However, there have been concerning issues raised around AI generative media, with some suggesting that it could lead to a rise in misinformation, propaganda, and non-consensual pornography, as seen in the case of AI image generative systems and deepfakes, according to a report by The Washington Post. Meta says it wants to be “thoughtful” about how they build such generative models and hence plans to limit access to them. However, a timeline on the demo experience and clarity on how access would be limited is yet to be known.


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