There is growing worry among parents, digital watchdog organizations, and schools about an app called Tellonym. The app lets users ask and answer questions about each other anonymously — a concept that the app creators hope will encourage open and honest conversation, but experts say is enabling cyberbullying and cruelty.
Founded in 2016 by a trio of teenaged students in Germany, Tellonym says on the App Store that it has 13 million users worldwide; the app monitoring service SensorTower reports that the app had 600,000 downloads in January 2019. Tellonym CEO Maximillian Rellin says that 13 million is an “outdated” figure, but would only specify that it has more than 1 million daily users.
The idea is that users make a non-anonymous profile. Then, on that profile, users anonymously leave “tells,” or messages intended to “tell me what you think of me.” If the user chooses to answer an anonymous “tell,” the conversation will appear on their profile.
“With growing rates of social anxiety, anonymity is a great option to talk to others, starting a conversation while slowly reducing concerns like fear of rejection to finally reveal oneself resulting in the creation of new friendships and sometimes also loves,” Rellin said.
The app calls itself “the most honest place on the internet”; the name “Tellonym” is a play on “anonymous” and “tell on him.”
So what could go wrong?
In July 2018, the app appeared to gain traction internationally. The Manchester Evening News reported that schools were beginning to warn parents about cyberbullying on the app. The story gained national attention in the UK.
The pattern appears to be repeating itself in the United States. Mashable has learned that U.S. schools are also advising parents to check their teens’ phones for Tellonym, and any sign of cyberbullying. PopSugar and CNN began to sound the alarm in January 2019. And parental watchdog organizations including Protect Young Eyes and Common Sense Media have also sought to educate parents about the app. One parent who reviewed the app on Common Sense described Tellonym — which her daughter uses — as “nothing but a platform for bullying.”
Tellonym says on its website that it’s trying to prevent bullying. It says it blocks 85 percent of short messages that violate its terms, and apparently removes 50 percent of terms-violating messages longer than 15 characters.
“Our filters are in place to remove content automatically which is not compliant to our Community Guidelines – we do have an active moderator community which helps us improve those filters on a regular basis and having a strong dataset to test those filters,” the Tellonym’s website reads.
“We take concerns of parents very seriously and are working very hard on countering any misuse of Tellonym,” Rellin said. “Creating a system that is safe by design was one of our core motivations behind Tellonym.”
The concept of anonymous messaging isn’t exactly new, but it hasn’t fared well — especially when these services become popular among teenagers. Anonymous messaging services Yik Yak and Sarahah both shut down following controversy around abuse and bullying.
Further, inconsistencies, errors, and the casual communication style on the site does not bolster confidence in the Tellonym team’s ability to manage an anonymous community of cruel teenagers.
Rellin clarified to Mashable that users over the age of 13 can use Tellonym; the 17-year-old standard is imposed by the App Store. Anyone under 16 must enter a parent’s email address, and they won’t be able to download the app until Tellonym gets written consent from their parents. It’s easy to see the work-around here, and Mashable has asked Rellin for more information about how its small team handles this manual process.
Another misgiving comes from Tellonym’s own safety communications. The app’s website directs readers to “an explanation of all our safety options” via a link that just goes to an empty Tellonym “safety” profile — users can leave “tells,” supposedly about safety? But there’s no actual information here. The explanation of safety on the site is peppered with kissy-face emoji.
Finally, a look at the Tellonym team on the website simply shows a photo of seven white men and one white woman, who all appear to be in their late teens or early 20s; CEO Max Rellin says that he is 21 years old.
Social media is rife with racial, sexual, and gendered discrimination and harassment. Rellin says that his team is working with experts and parents on cyberbullying, but that, primarily, the qualifications this group has to deal with these issues comes from their identity as digital natives.
“We have the best qualification possible for that: Growing up with traditional social media and experiencing the negative impacts on our own,” Rellin said. “This puts us in a position of really understanding what is happening and deeply caring about changing it to the better. Besides that, we work with experts, have been in schools to talk to teachers and regularly seek exchange with parents.
Rellin is optimistic about the potential of anonymous messaging to open dialogues and help people make friends. He hopes that his users will keep using it as a relationship-building tool as the product grows.
“Even if our product currently doesn’t offer the ability to reveal oneself, users find other ways of doing exactly that,” Rellin said. “Getting hundreds of messages every day, thanking us for creating new friendships and enabling relationships are showing that – and, are a huge motivation for us to keep doing what we love, building an awesome product for the new generation.”
Anonymous messaging, in theory, enables fun and honest communication. However, it hasn’t often played out that way in the real world: anonymous messaging is instead a source of trolling and harassment all over the internet, with a high potential for real-world harm.
Ignoring that vicious reality seems like a decision made by, well, teenagers.
UPDATE: Feb. 13, 2019, 2:35 p.m. PST
Mashable has updated the story to add quotes and information from Tellonym CEO Max Rellin.