Anti Bullying App?

Earlier this month Stacy Suaya wrote a piece in the NYT (in the “Style” section, for some reason), reporting on an “An App Combats Bullying, One Anonymous Compliment at a Time” . This sounds interesting, though it is quickly apparent that the app doesn’t actually exist yet. Nor is there much clue about how it might work. Heck, I’m not even sure what they mean by “bullying”, in this context.

The technology appears to be built on the existing app called Brighten, which is described as:

Send anonymous compliments to friends, and see if it makes them smile! You can also read the nice things people are saying to your friends.

This app isn’t much different from any other messaging app, except it is supposed to be only used to send compliments.

OK, that sounds good.  Maybe too good to be real.

First, let’s all agree from the start that it is way more pleasant to receive compliments (deserved or not) and other nice messages than to be trolled.

But everything else about this app raises a ton of unanswered questions.  Here are some of the big ones.

Why are the messages anonymous? After all, you are saying something nice about the person. The FAQ explains:

a way for people to let their friends know how much they’re appreciated and loved, without the awkwardness or stigma that comes with giving a close friend a genuine compliment in real life.”

Huh. I hadn’t realized that “giving a close friend a genuine compliment” is either awkward or stigmatizing—it’s kind of what it means to be a close friend. But sure, some people, especially young people, are shy. And everyone can be uncertain whether friendly feelings are returned equally.

On the other hand, we know from decades of experience that any and every anonymous messaging system ever built has degenerated into flames, spam, trolling, and every other kind of misbehavior. 100% So how do they keep things positive?

The Brighten FAQ gives no clue, and, as far as I can tell, the only thing keeping it positive is the expectations and social pressure to use this app in this way. You only use this app to be nice (you an be nasty elsewhere?) This seems like a pretty weak guarantee to me, especially considering that any unpleasantness will pretty much destroy the whole idea of the app.

Stepping back a bit, I have to wonder how well this works at all. Is it safe and effective? Is there evidence to show that it is good for people? Or that it does anything at all?

The Brighten web site offers a few testimonials about how nice it is to get compliments. But there is no suggestion that this app has been validated in any meaningful way. (Apologies if there is research that I haven’t seen.) This leaves me with zillions of unanswered questions.

Do anonymous digital compliments actually make people happy?  How much impact do they have? Compared to what? Compared to in-person compliments? To in-person attention of any kind? To digital compliments signed by people you know?

Personally, I’d bet there is a lot of individual variability in how people respond. Just as an example, after decades on the Internet I generally ignore all messages except from people I know well.

On the sending side, what is the psychology of anonymous digital praise. What does this say about your relation to the object of praise? Does anonymity intensify or water down the commitment to the compliment? Does it intensify or dilute the pleasure from doing the nice  thing?  Again, I’d expect considerable individual variation in how compliments are given.

By the way, reading between the lines, it seems likely that a common use case for Brighten is a gang of friends (e.g., middle school girls), complimenting each other. In a group of a dozen or less, it’s likely that the messages are not really very anonymous, are they? So is the anonymity even real?


So, back to the NYT article. How would this technology be used to combat “bullying”?

The target appears to be digital bullying by girls on other girls. I.e., digital trolling, shaming, and other harassment by peers. (That is only one of man kinds of bullying.) So, just how does something like Brighten address this kind of bullying?

This is not at all clear to me.

Part of the story must be teaching by example and social pressure: this app is intended to be used for particular kinds of messaging, and you should send and receive that kind of message here.  It’s a venue for learning how to be nice, and for learning how nice it is to be positive to each other.

How could this reduce bullying?

I guess that, to the degree these compliments and positive messages are pleasant and rewarding, the users will spend more time here, and less in other arenas where bad things might happen. (A sort of “crowding out” of bad messaging?) It is also possible that being nice might be so much fun that it will carry over to other channels. (A sort of general “learning to be nice” effect?)

But honestly, I have to think that some people will still send and receive nasty, bullying messages, no matter how many nice messages they send or receive.  And I am positive that most people will conform to the norms of different channels, and will be able to be “nice” in Brighten and snarky in their other apps.

Perhaps the nice messages will cancel out or reduce the damage from negative messages from other channels. (A sort of “inooculation” effect?) But I wouldn’t count on it.

What I’m saying is, does this actually work? And if so, how and how well and for whom?

Inquiring minds want to know.

These are perfectly reasonable psychological questions, though they may be difficult to answer. And these are necessary questions to ask, before you can claim that this app is anything other than a placebo.

So far, I have not seen any answers. I have not even seen any attempt to ask the questions.   That concerns me. I hate to think that people are fooling themselves into believing that they are really ameliorating the problem of bullying, if it really doesn’t work.

  1. Stacy Suaya, An App Combats Bullying, One Anonymous Compliment at a Time, in New York Times. 2016: New York.


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