When the topic of of anonymity in social media comes up in conversation, it’s rarely long before things turn issues of bullying and other forms of abuse. If the history of networks like Chatroulette and Ask.FM are any guide, this dark side of the social Web seems to be an inevitability when you remove the social accountability that comes with real identity. It’s one reason we’ve been so incredibly hard on Secret in recent months for the company’s apparent lack of concern or a clear strategy for policing its community.
But according to Whisper founder Michael Heyward, speaking last night in a PandoMonthly fireside chat in Santa Monica, this type of ugly community culture is hardly a foregone conclusion for all anonymous communities.
Since starting his anonymous social network two-and-a-half-years ago, Heyward and his co-founder have made it a priority to set cultural norms and behavioral expectations that discourage abusive behavior, he says. As a result of these measures, combined with a strict set of community rules and technologies to police them, Heyward believes that Whisper is far healthier than the majority of its fellow anonymous networks. It’s the reason why users flock to the site not to tell scandalous secrets about others, but to reveal their personal insecurities, deepest fears, and guilty pleasures.
The most astonishing thing about Whisper’s approach might be how early the company made community management a priority. Heyward said, “We did it from day one. If you don’t, it’s too late. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in. So we made it a priority to set that cultural tone.”
He later added, “Because people don’t see [abusive] things, they don’t get trained that way. What happened with Chatroulette and Ask.FM is that there’s a very small number of people who just, unprovoked, take down their pants in front of a web cam. But, what happens is, all these other people see that and think that’s what you do here, so that’s what I’m gonna do. We’re all just a bunch of followers.”
The two core principles that guide Whisper’s culture, according to Heyward, are first, don’t use anonymity to hurt others (only use anonymity to protect yourself), and second, you should never be on Whisper and then feel like you need to take a shower. All of the more granular and tactical rules flow downward from here, he says.
Those rules are very specific and nuanced, Heyward explains, including distinctions like banning certain words in replies, but permitting them in select contexts in top-level posts. He offers the example of the word “faggot,” which is almost always malicious as a response, but as a top-level post, such as “Today someone called me a faggot,” can be an important part of letting people express themselves and seek support within the community. It may seem like splitting hairs, but outlining these rules, and instituting the human and technology infrastructure to enforce them in real-time has been core to Whisper’s success, in Heyward’s view.
“We’re asking people to come on here and share something they’ve never told anyone,” Heyward says. “Imagine you’re some 20 year old kid and you share, ‘I wish I were straight so my parents would love me.’ You’re literally stripping away all of your guards and protections and making yourself very, very vulnerable. We’re not going to have a place where anyone is allowed to attack you or be mean to you when you’re putting yourself in that position.”
Whisper’s early sense of the gravity of such policies is dramatically different than many other anonymous social networks that only step in to moderate abusive action once they’ve seen their community run afoul of acceptable behavior and have been publicly taken to task. As a result of this proactive approach, the social norm on Whisper today, according to Heyward, is no bullying, no proper names (other than those in the public domain), no explicit imagery, be nice, be supportive, and be compassionate. It’s essentially the exact opposite of Secret, which is often a platform for bullying, spreading rumors about real people and real companies, and throwing compassion and support out the window at every turn.
But just posting these rules on the proverbial wall obviously isn’t enough to make people follow them. So how did Whisper make them more than just good intentions?
The company started early, by hiring a six person moderation team pre-launch and scaling that department with the growth of its community. Today that team is made up of 130 full-time people and is the company’s largest single cost center, Heyward says, adding that the team is almost double the size required by his community simply out of an abundance of caution.
“I’ve always felt that we could create this place that would make people a lot more compassionate and a lot more empathetic,” Heyward says. “I didn’t think like, ‘We can create this hugely successful and this product that could go hugely viral, but we need to make sure people aren’t mean.’ It was more from the other side. Because it is about creating a safe place and a good place, then safety needs to be key.”
The company also invests tremendously into providing resources to users struggling with serious life issues. For example, in its two-and-a-half-years, Whisper has referred more than 40,000 people to the national suicide hotline. The company also launched a non-profit foundation called Your Voice that curates user-generated content from people who have overcome issues like eating disorders, body dysmorphia, struggles with sexual orientation, and other topics.
“The people that are calling the suicide hotline and the people that go see a psychologist are not at nearly as much risk as the 90 percent of people who have these issues but never say a word about it,” Heyward says. “Why don’t they say a word about it? Because there’s this stigma that if you have these issues, there’s something wrong with you – you’re defective. So we started this non-profit because this should be totally normal stuff, and maybe if it’s totally normal then it won’t be such a big deal.”
Not everyone in the Valley may understand the difference between Whisper and Secret, but it seems the companies’ founders and investors feel dramatically different levels of responsibility for the content and behavior that appear within their communities.
Heyward comes across as someone who hasn’t always been the coolest, most confident, most popular kid in the room. Maybe it’s because of this, and because he’s decidedly of the digital-first generation, that Whisper seems to understand and empathize with his audience in a way that few other anonymous platform created by entrepreneurs and investors a generation Heyward’s senior simply haven’t.
It seems to be through this empathy and genuine concern that the company has been able to effectively cater to that community’s needs and make Whisper a healthy and productive place to share and interact. It’s the reason why users feel comfortable sharing things like: “I’m in this country illegally and every night I have nightmares over being deported;” “This is my third tour in Afghanistan and I hope I don’t come back because I don’t know how to act in society anymore;” and “I’m 17 and pregnant, how do I tell my parents?”
“More people need to have a real serious discussion about why they don’t do more to protect their users,” Heyward said. “I’m not saying we don’t make mistakes. I’m young, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I hope I’m going to make more – not an excessive amount, but some – but what I will say is that we take nothing more seriously. All you need to do is look at our actions, they speak for themselves. … I think lots of companies should do a lot more than they’re currently doing.”
“This is not some PR thing or some handwaving thing,” Heyward adds. “We live and breathe this every day.”