Whisper continues its march toward being a full blown media company, a move that raises as many questions as it does interesting possibilities as we consider the roles of anonymity and social content in “responsible journalism.” In March, I delved into the problems with Whisper’s BuzzFeed partnership, through which the viral blog attempted to prove that it can do serious work even as it partnered with a network built entirely on unsubstantiated user-submitted rumors.
This may be less of a problem for Fusion, the millennial-focused television channel that, according to the Hollywood Reporter, has partnered with Whisper to integrate content from the anonymous service into its shows. Whisper, it seems, has successfully leapt from the online world to television, which raises an interesting question: When does anonymous content go from unverified rumor to a broadcast-worthy nugget of information?
The answer depends, in part, on the company sharing the information. Many media outlets shared a Whisper post about Gwyneth Paltrow’s marriage without a second thought – or further reporting, it would seem – which is particularly troubling because there was no way to verify whether that the rumor came from a trusted source. Whisper, after all, promises not to reveal information about its users.
In fairness, it’s not Whisper’s fault that media outlets seized the opportunity to speculate about Paltrow’s marriage after someone shared the rumor to its service — or at least it wouldn’t be, if the company weren’t so intent on partnering with media companies and heralding the Paltrow tidbit as a “scoop” that other publications would have to follow. That’s not allowing media companies to use its content, it’s encouraging gossip for attention.
Pando’s David Holmes wrote about the Paltrow controversy when Whisper’s $ 30 million funding round came to light, and noted that the network could cause further problems when its anonymous image macros are casually shared and re-shared by media:
It looks like news, it sounds like news, and because it involves sex and celebrities people will click on it. But it also comes from an anonymous, invisible source offering no proof of authority or trustworthiness. Could it be a lead for an eventual news story? Maybe. But it is not, as Zimmerman put in a tweet, a ‘scoop.‘ And while I’m sure a celebrity like Paltrow is no stranger to unsupported claims (she’s denied the affair, by the way), what happens when the stakes are higher and the victims aren’t public figures? What if, in the wake of a terrorist attack, a Whisper user falsely accuses someone of being behind it, resulting in a witch hunt? The accuser’s intentions may even be good; you know, Reddit never intended to identify the wrong man in the wake of the Boston bombing.
Fusion intends to sidestep those issues by using Whisper posts in the aggregate to add flavor to its broadcasts and inform its coverage, but that still doesn’t make it clear when those posts become something more than the inane ramblings of a bored Internet users. People tend to view lying online with a sense of casualness that is far different than in the “real world.” Thus, is collecting a bunch of those lies a way to suss out the truth, or will it just contribute to the perception of millennials and Generation D as assholes and the Web as a bastion of more sleaze than substance?
I’m inclined to believe the latter. The last thing my generation needs is for yet another media outlet to rely on the exaggerated bragging of anonymous Internet users to portray us as fools who don’t know how to live in the real world. (Feel free to imagine that sentence being written through a fog of Adderall, Molly, Bath Salts or whatever other drug millennials are supposed to be on this week.) It might be good for Whisper, but it’s hardly good for its audience, or for Fusion for that matter.
I hope I’m wrong. I would like to believe that Fusion is going to be able to prove that Whisper doesn’t have to be a wildly irresponsible company offering an anonymous platform to any fool with a smartphone. I would also like to think that perhaps a few of those fools are sharing real stories instead of pandering to their fellow users in an attempt to feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, based on what we’ve seen from Whisper so far, both ideas seem highly unlikely.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]