Field Notes Society

My fortnight on Sarahah

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After all that fuss about its plainspeak, the app turns out to be quite tame

It’s only when we are very young and don’t know any better, or when we are very old and don’t care any more that our interactions with others are completely unfiltered. For the in-between years we are trained to watch our words — to be polite, to avoid saying things that may hurt people, to couch uncomfortable truths with more palatable half-truths. .

One problem with this social construct is that the effort needed to maintain these filters can sometimes get stressful.Sometimes, the filter snaps — and we know the ugliness that can ensue. My way to try and reduce this is to find a vent or two where I can let the filter snap with minimal consequences. But there’s the other side, the lingering doubt that nothing people have told me about myself is actually true.

It is this lingering doubt that drew me to Sarahah, the app that’s taken the world by storm, where people can leave anonymous messages for you once you register. On the surface, it looks rather dangerous. I have seen how people misuse anonymity on Twitter. They bully, they abuse, they harass — confidently ensconced in the immunity of their anonymous handles.

One-way ticket

Sarahah takes this one step further. It is one-way traffic: you can’t respond. But curiosity got the better of me and I signed up. This was not the first time such an app has surfaced. There was ask.me, Formspring, Secret, CuriousCat, and others. I had signed up for most of them only to quickly see them descend into the maelstrom of abuse I expected them to be. That I still signed up for Sarahah betrays a streak of curiosity that overrides common sense.

So yes, I expected the worst, and put out a tweet letting people know they could now tell me things anonymously. On Twitter, I have for years now made my positions rather clear: I’m atheist, I pooh-pooh all religion, I’m liberal or progressive, I condemn shady practices trying to pass off as tradition, and I have a reputation for provoking authority at every opportunity. So I expected a litany of snarling messages, taunting my beliefs. If I was a woman, my expectation from Sarahah would have been even lower of course.

A crush from afar

It has been two weeks now since I signed up. And at the time of writing this article, not counting spam, I have received 170 messages. If those messages were mostly abuse heaped on me by people who don’t share my political or societal beliefs, I would not have been too surprised. But what actually happened took me by complete surprise.

There was some abuse, of course. Mostly loud, grammatically incorrect and logically unsound defence of the party in power. But these were fewer than I could count on one hand. The rest fell into a few categories.

One, there were shy people expressing their desire and inability or fear to talk to me, or to ask me out for coffee or drinks. “I used to have the most ridiculous crush on you (from afar).” Or “In another time, another world, I’d have asked you out. Here’s wishing you that you may find all that is wonderful in yourself and the world.”

As much as I believe that I am utterly harmless and don’t bite, I understand where they come from. I suffer from the same social awkwardness and have over the decades perfected the art of romantic reticence. Sarahah serves an important purpose here, where introverts feel like they have both made a move, unburdened themselves, as well as made no move at all, staying true to their personality.

A slight variation were messages that just said sweet complimentary things. Possibly because it would have embarrassed them to actually say it to me directly.

Then there were people asking for recommendations. About books, movies, music, and the like. “Name your top 3 Kannada songs”, “Can you recommend good books on Bangalore and Karnataka?”, and “What SF book would you recommend to a total noob?” Even one “Rexona or Santoor?” They could have just as well asked me these without the anonymity.

Three, and to me the most interesting, were people who used Sarahah to quite benignly ask me about my ideological stances. Someone wanted to know why I was an atheist. Another why I supported the idea of affirmative action. Or even what I thought of how quizzes were conducted in India.

One person spoke about the threat posed by religious monocultures. Someone else asked if people were exploiting Gauri Lankesh’s death. I answered them on Twitter, hoping that they see it there.

And this is where Sarahah did add value to discourse, because when responding to someone anonymous, I am addressing only the point raised without falling prey to biases determined by my judgement of the person asking the question. This sort of usage, though, seems to be almost uniquely Sarahah’s. None of the previous anonymous messaging apps came close, at least in my experience, to the kind of nuanced opinions and questions that Sarahah seems to have brought forth.

Opaque filter

A huge reason for this is definitely the way the app has been designed. Right from colour choices (a dull teal that immediately reminds me of night dresses) to explicitly reminding people to say something “constructive” while they are typing their messages in, Sarahah seems designed to nudge people into making more fruitful use of the app than they did with its predecessors.

The anonymity doesn’t seem to have entirely removed social filters. It’s just replaced the thick, opaque filter with something more transparent, and thus probably better filter than what we use in real life.

Now if you want to say something about this assessment, please do so at udupendra.sarahah.com

The writer’s day job involves attempting to break cartels in the construction industry using a few lines of code.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 3:21:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/my-fortnight-on-sarahah/article19697609.ece

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