What the Count 19 app tells us about the paradox of innovation and anonymity

A new app, which includes a matric learner as one of its developers, has a South African high school up in arms. Called Count 19, the app allows people to broadcast anonymous messages to anyone near them who also has it installed and started gaining traction in the last week or so.

There’s nothing terribly unusual in that: it’s sort like the now defunct Secret, but based on location rather than your contact list.

The trouble is, a number of pupils at Seheti High School in Johannesburg, where one of the developers is believed to be a pupil, started using the app to post derogatory comments about their fellow learners and teachers.

According to News24, the school has contacted the police and is considering a lawsuit against Count 19’s developers.

“We are disappointed by the students who lost restraint in a sense and posted vulgar and defamatory messages about students and teachers,” Saheti executive headmaster Warwick Taylor told the Naspers-owned media house.

“It targets a child’s person and character, and we want to stop the abuse where possible. Our own psychologists are here — they are taking some children out of class to deal one-on-one with the damage that was done.”

The school also contacted the Apple and Google to have the app removed from their respective app stores — something which has not happened to date.

After the furor around the app bubbled up, the chairman of the school’s governing body is believed to have confronted the matric pupil in question, using vulgar language while doing so.

While the identity of the matric pupil who co-built the app is unknown at this stage, his collaborator goes by the name Michael Jordan and has an honours degree in actuarial science. The developer account associated with the app is also responsible for a random number generator and a location-based social app.

It’s also unclear what the fate of the pupil will be at this stage, although the school is exploring legal action.

“I’m not sure what the future holds in terms of where possible disciplinary action will be taken. The student is saying he is not responsible,” Taylor told News24.

“There is a possibility [of legal action]. We are not saying yes or no. We are exploring all avenues, and we are going the route of determining who the authors were of the comments.”

For his part, Taylor said that he and the pupil had initially taken the app down, but put it back up because of “freedom of speech”.

While Jordan acknowledged that the pupils at Saheti had gotten of hand, he added that the content on the app was no different to “when you go to the bathroom and see what is written behind a toilet door.”

The paradoxical problems of anonymity

Thing is, the reason people feel safe writing those things on the back of toilet doors and on apps like Count19 is because they can do so anonymously and without fear of reprisal.

When used for good, that anonymity can be incredibly powerful. Without being able to guarantee the anonymity of its sources, Memeburn would be unable to tell many of the stories it does and whistleblowers wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable exposing corporate and governmental wrongdoing.

The support website for Count19 suggests other well-intentioned reasons for keeping the app anonymous:

The anonymity and the remoteness of Count 19 helps to avoid issues of groupthink and personality conflict. More than this, it gives people time to think issues through properly, critique arguments rigorously and contribute fully.

But as the teachers and pupils at Seheti have found out, online anonymity can also have a much more brutal side. Without it, Reddit wouldn’t have flourished to the degree it has, but it’s users also wouldn’t have felt entitled to retaliate the way they did when then CEO Ellen Pao tried to clean “the front page of the internet” up a little.

It’s also why so many news sites now force people to log-in and comment using their Facebook profiles. At least that way, they’ll be forced to have their real names associated with the content they’ve posted online. Even that isn’t always enough. News24 itself tried the Facebook strategy, before eventually shutting down its comments section entirely (and then turning it back on for certain stories).

That shift in behaviour in online interactions, and anonymous ones in particular, is actually an observable phenomenon. Called online disinhibition effect, Wikipedia describes it as a “loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the internet”.

It’s probably something the Count19 developers should have looked up before publishing the app, although if they had the app probably wouldn’t be getting the attention it is.

The Streisand Effect strikes back

A large amount of that attention is down to another internet phenomenon called the Streisand Effect, in which an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely,

Had the Seheti school used the app’s popularity to educate its students and staff about disinhibition online, or actually used the app itself to engage critically with students, chances are it would’ve been a lot longer before it started grabbing headlines and for very different reasons.

By all accounts, Count 19 is about more than just malicious gossip and actually includes some pretty high level discussions, including a debate on religion which drew on an essay by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

“Reddit is the Internet, and it exhibits all the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet,” Pao wrote in a Washington Post op-ed decrying how much ground the trolls have gained online.

It’s a lesson which most of the internet is still battling with, but hopefully it’s one that the developers of Count 19 and the Seheti school learn pretty quickly.



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