Anonymous social apps targeting teens haven’t gone away after Snapchat’s new policy, which earlier this year banned the integration of these types of social experiences with the developer platform. Instead, the apps have found a new way to reach young people: Instagram. In recent weeks, new apps like Sendit for Instagram and NGL have launched anonymous Q&A apps that allow users to post “ask me something” style questions on Instagram to receive anonymous responses from friends. Teens flocked to the apps, both of which rose to the top of the App Store after launch.
History has shown that these kinds of social experiences are often problematic. Online anonymity among teens often leads to bullying and abuse. For example, Snapchat eventually chose to suspend anonymous apps from its platform after being sued multiple times by families whose teens died by suicide after being bullied on Snapchat-connected anonymous messaging apps. Lawmakers and regulators have pressured social media to implement more safeguards for their youngest users.
But with today’s focus on how Big Tech is tackling online safety issues for younger users, indie apps like Sendit and NGL have been able to fly under the radar. And like the anonymous apps that came before them, they’ve taken off quickly.
According to data from Sensor Tower, the anonymous question-and-answer app Sendit for Instagram was launched on June 24, 2022, and immediately saw 117,000 installs within its first two days, reaching No. 3 in the US App Store. Sensor Tower says the app now has somewhere north of 150,000 installs, but exact estimates aren’t available. Another company, data.ai (formerly App Annie), sees the app with 266,000 iOS downloads but has no Google Play data.
It has since changed its name to Sendit – Q&A on Instagram. Data.ai also noted that the app shot to #1 in the Social Networking category and in general in non-gaming apps in the US App Store from June 23, 2022, to June 28, 2022, at launch.
Sensor Tower said that the same company behind Sendit for Instagram also operates a version of Sendit aimed at Snapchat, which has more than 18 million lifetime installs and has generated more than $11 million in consumer spending to date.
Meanwhile, the anonymous Q&A app NGL launched on December 10, 2021, and has seen more than 3.5 million installs, data from Sensor Tower shows. It reached #1 on the US App Store on June 16, 2022, and now has over $1 million in consumer spending. Data.ai had estimated that the number of downloads was even higher: about 5 million.
However, there are concerns that these apps don’t necessarily work up and down.
For starters, Sendit to Instagram users has complained in reviews that the app had originally marketed itself as “Sendit Reveal” during the pre-order phase. According to the studies, the company promised a new Sendit app to reveal which friends had sent anonymous messages. This was a big draw for the app’s young users, as everyone wanted to know who said what.
App Store screenshots from the time confirmed this to be the case.
The marketing strategy worked. Users’ demand for “Reveal” helped install the app, which was renamed Sendit – for Instagram after launch.
The problem was not addressed immediately. Sendit founder Hunter Rice was approached for comment about what appeared to be a bait-and-switch technique for recruiting users. He suggested that our coverage of this amounted to “clickbait”.
“There are many great things about what we do that are newsworthy,” Rice told TechCrunch. “You can have fun with this topic, but I’m only interested in talking about real news,” he said.
But an analysis of App Store reviews at least indicates that users felt they were misled by the previous branding and expected a very different experience.
The company behind Sendit, Fullsenders (which now also calls itself Icon Hearts on its website), had another viral hit last year with an app called Push It. The social app has also climbed to the top of the App Store. At the time, users complained that the app used bots to answer fake questions — things they knew their friends would never have asked, they said. Rice had denied using bots at the time.
The flagship version of the company’s Sendit app saw similar complaints about bots, as did the new Instagram version. App Store reviews have been re-filled with users questioning the legitimacy of the questions’ origins.
Essentially a clone of Sendit, the new NGL app also allows users to post anonymous Q&As on Instagram. To set itself apart, the app touts its “world-class” [sic] AI content moderation,” which claims to filter out bullying and harassment. (A recent Forbes study found that the app struggled to explicitly block British slang and French, Spanish, and German profanities.)
As it turns out, there aren’t many bullying complaints among the app’s 68,000+ App Store reviews. But some people complain about bots asking them false questions here as well. Much like consumers’ concerns about Fullsenders’ apps, many NGL users insist they see questions they believe weren’t sent in by their friends. Notably, the app charges users a $10-per-week subscription to “reveal” who sent the query. Users also complain that this paid service only provides hints like what kind of phone the user has or what region he lives in.
NGL did not respond to a request for comment.
TechCrunch has tested both apps, NGL and Sendit, for Instagram. We copied the personalized links and posted them in an Instagram story only shown to ‘Close Friends’, then immediately deleted the post so no one would see it. This tricked the apps into thinking we’d published our link so friends could comment. Several hours later, both apps sent us a series of questions purportedly sent by “friends.” The questions were harmless, like “the weirdest dream you’ve ever had?” (Send) or “what was the best day so far this year?” (NGL), for example.
No one had access to the links we created, so these were automated posts.
We asked Instagram if any of these apps integrated with its platform through Meta’s developer tools governed by the platform policy. Meta has not been able to provide this information so far.
App intelligence company Apptopia told us that it only has visibility into NGL. It found that it uses the Facebook SDK in the Google Play version but not in the iOS app. Neither Sensor Tower nor data.ai had insight into the components of either app, they said.
Since the apps only provide the ability to link to Stories, they don’t necessarily rely on technical integrations offered through Meta developer tools to function. That means they wouldn’t be held responsible by Meta’s developer policy regarding anonymous messaging apps either.
Meta’s policy seems more lenient than Snap’s, as it allows for anonymous messaging if apps offer a blocking feature. (Section 8.8.2. an of the policy states, “Pages or apps should not enable personal messages, relays, or interactions that mask user identities from one another without giving individual users the ability to block other users within the messaging experience.”) Meta’s policy also prohibits bots under the spam section (8.8.2.b).
Recently, it appeared that Meta took action against NGL when users started reporting that Instagram was removing the links to the NGL app from their Instagram Stories. But Instagram told us that NGL had access to the link feature that was “accidentally” revoked, and access has since been restored.
These Instagram-bound mobile apps come when Snapchat aims to tighten how third-parties use its platform tools. That change could affect Sendit’s grip. The app had taken advantage of Snapchat’s previous ban on the anonymous apps Yolo and LMK, which had been cited in lawsuits. But now Sendit is among those who should be banned from the platform under Snap’s new developer policy. (Snap told TechCrunch last month that it had given Sendit more time to comply with its policy after the developer requested an extension.)
Investing in the anonymous social space of the consumer rarely pays off in the long run. The web is littered with failed anonymous social apps that had to shut down due to bullying and other issues, including Ask. fm, Yik Yak, After School, Secret, Yolo, and Sarahah.
In previous years, the app stores had even taken action against apps offering anonymous messaging experiences. For example, Sarahah was banned from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store after allegations that it facilitated bullying. Today, Apple is pushing for a set of protections for any app containing user-generated content, but it doesn’t ban the anonymous social category.
It’s not clear whether the app stores will act against these new anonymous apps, despite how they mislead their young users about the nature of the incoming messages, which are sent by bots and not really from friends.
Without enforced policies, a new breed of developers will always be willing to risk long-term success for short-term gains. The business models for this latest group of apps depend on the lack of policies and regulations in this market.