SALT LAKE CITY — What if anyone within a 100-yard radius could send you anonymous messages? What could go wrong, right?
A relatively new app called Lipsi offers just that. Lipsi lets users anonymously start conversations with other users nearby, and the app is gaining serious traction among young people.
But though Lipsi app users skew young, all users have to verify that they're 18 years old before they start using the app — yet all it takes is a click of a button to say you're the right age. If your underage kid is using Lipsi, they probably shouldn't be.
There have been anonymous messaging apps before, and, like Lipsi, they've caused controversy.
In 2013, Yik Yak allowed users to start anonymous conversations with those in a 5-mile radius. Yik Yak's popularity rose rapidly, particularly with high school and college students. Complaints of bullying and threats led to its shutdown in 2017.
When Yik Yak fell, another app called Sarahah took its place. Like Yik Yak, Sarahah allowed anonymous messaging and was initially created for employees to give anonymous feedback to bosses. The app's usage on Snapchat increased both its popularity and harassment incidents, and, in early 2018, both the Apple Store and Google Play removed Sarahah for download.
But apps are like weeds — they grow fast. When one weed is pulled, another one typically grows to take its place. Now, Lipsi is the new popular anonymous messaging app.
So I decided to download and try out Lipsi myself. After signing up and verifying that I was over 18, I was able to create my own shareable link for anonymous feedback. (People often attach this link to their Instagram bio so followers can send anonymous feedback or compliments.)
Once you're signed in, the app will let you search other users within a 100-yard radius by name, then start a conversation with them anonymously. Others can do the same to you.
I never ran into someone near me using the app, but Lipsi is not designed for me, it's designed for teens and young adults. In a school setting surrounded by peers and smartphones, I suspect that the main page to Lipsi would be full of opportunities to comment.
The app's founder, Matthew Segal, told the Vancouver Sun that the idea for the app came after he kept running into a girl he was interested in, but lacked the courage to tell her. And this does seem to be a common theme of messaging on the app.
Through the signup process, though, I couldn't help but notice not one, not two, but three reminders from the app about harassment and abusive comments. According to the app, "abuse is not tolerated," and anyone who is reported for sending abusive, threatening or racist comments will have their identity revealed, the app warns.
The app also has a relatively new feature called "community review" where users can go through actual messages sent to people and decide whether or not they should be delivered.
I went through many of these messages, and it reminded me of elementary and junior high. My classmates would create elaborately folded paper messages with questions, the most popular of which was: "Do you like me?" with a box for YES and one for NO. Lipsi seems to be a more modern version of that.
If those were the only messages I saw I would not be that concerned. However, the majority of messages in the community review process were abusive. For every, "I think you're pretty" or "Do you like me?" there was three sexually suggestive or abusive messages.
Anonymity, unfortunately, can bring out the worst of human behavior. Although Lipsi, like anything online, isn't truly anonymous. I was concerned about the information the app said it may gather which includes: email, locations, birth dates, gender, friends lists and more. While that information can be good for moderating trolls and bullies, it also is deceptive for someone who thinks they are anonymously communicating.
I can see some benefits to Lipsi, however. Like any app, there are positives and negatives. As business owners, I can see how Lipsi would be useful to gather anonymous feedback. The links that Lipsi provides are simple to put on Instagram or other sites to gather that information.
The anonymity can also be used in positive ways. I saw several messages with people reaching out to check on others. An individual who is going through a mental health crisis could find both support, and negativity, through Lipsi.
There are places for anonymity, but I would be hesitant to recommend Lipsi to anyone under 18. Adults with more life experience may find it easier to sort through the negative and positive comments and not internalize harassing messages. Young people are still learning resiliency and developing their own internal identities.
If a young person does need to speak to someone anonymously, there are great resources through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There are also other helpful anonymous apps like SafeUT, which offers an emergency crisis line. There are also Utah-based crisis resources.
And if a young person is curious whether their classmate likes them back, paper is always an option.