Are anonymous social apps the future of citizen journalism?

Jun 05, 2014
Are anonymous social apps the future of citizen journalism?

Anonymous social apps like Whisper and Secret are no longer only being used to share gossip about strangers’ relationships, sexual encounters or, in the case of users from Silicon Valley, the latest tidbit about some tech startup. Nor are their postings necessarily full of confessions of a personal nature. As more and more people download and use the apps, more people view these secrets - over 3.5 billion on Whisper alone – other sorts of “secrets” are being shared… and sometimes they’re related to brands and celebrities. 

What Newsworthy Content is Being Shared?

Granted, the citizen journalists that use these anonymous apps like Whisper, Secret and Yik Yak aren’t always sharing the most earth-shattering news stories, but still, some news stories are starting to “break” on apps like Whisper. One such popular celeb news story that got started via an anonymous source on one of these social apps was the “secret” that Gwyneth Paltrow cheated on her husband. 

While that gossip was originally squashed by Paltrow’s camp, it later became clear that there was trouble in Paltrow’s marriage when her and her husband, Chris Martin, decided to “consciously uncouple” and get divorced. The fact that Paltrow’s secret was outed on Whisper definitely appears to be a sign of the times, that citizen journalists can contribute newsworthy stories anonymously. 

After all, if the source can stay anonymous, what’s going to stop them from talking? Whisper’s own editorial director Neetzan Zimmerman suggested that the person who leaked the news about Paltrow was someone who had “close ties” to her. 

How Whisper is Becoming a News Source 

Of all the anonymous social apps, Whisper is at the forefront of recognizing that these secrets can sometimes be considered news and worthy of living off the app and elsewhere on the web. That’s why Zimmerman, in an attempt to reach a bigger audience, is attempting to sell Whisper as a news source by encouraging its users to report what they see at breaking news events in the form of both text and photos. Even if the source remains anonymous, as Whisper promises all their users they will be, Whisper tracks all the content its users post to make sure users aren’t bullying others, and can vet all reports so no false information is disseminated over their network.

But Whisper hasn’t stopped there either. Back in March, it was reported that Whisper and BuzzFeed were teaming up. The partnership will actually allow BuzzFeed writers to use Whisper’s internal search engine to create articles for their site. In that way, secrets will get to live on beyond the anonymous social app and reach a vast audience of people that don’t even know anything about anonymous social apps. 

In other words, those lists you see on BuzzFeed on everything from “celebs you didn’t know went to rehab” to “pranks people have played on their roommate,” might have been culled from Whisper’s network.  Granted, these aren’t “newsworthy” articles necessarily, but they are entertaining. And really, the fact that the partnership even exists between BuzzFeed and Whisper is a step in the direction of anonymous social apps playing a big role in the future of citizen journalism. Because if Whisper is willing to partner with BuzzFeed, chances are it’s just the beginning of other media partnerships. 

The Risks of Trusting Anonymous Social Apps

The danger in all this of course is that the source material on any of these apps is anonymous, and an anonymous source can be easily mislead if the “facts” it espouses are not somehow verified. Just look at what happened when speculation occurred on Twitter and Reddit about the Boston Bomber suspect. Names of two suspects spread like wildfire across the internet, although the origins of those names were based on misinformation and speculation. 

This information never had a chance to be “vetted,” as Whisper claims they do with their content, because it went viral so fast. That’s the nature of viral content after all; it spreads like it has a life of its own. There’s danger of that happening with the secrets posted on Whisper by citizen journalists as well, depending on the secret that’s being posted. 

How Brands Can Use Whisper

That said, since users are anonymous and have no identifying username, there is an opportunity for brands, as well as the PR people who represent them, to use the app as well. After all, what’s stopping them from posting “secrets” of their own? What’s the breaking news in your industry or with the brand you represent? That’s not to say this is necessarily newsworthy in any way, but there is potential for people to use the app for purposes other than posting a personal confession, spreading gossip or breaking a news story. 

Anonymous sources are nothing new in the field of journalism, but these anonymous social apps clearly do offer a platform for citizen journalists to get their story told – without providing their name or face. Only time will tell what this means for the news and PR industries.

What do you think? Have you explored Whisper? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Adrienne Erin is an outreach specialist at WebpageFX who is always looking for ways to improve her PR game. She has written for Content Marketing Institute, Search Engine People, and SiteProNews. Catch up with her on Twitter to see more of her work, connect on Google+ or check out her blog, Pongra.

About the author

Social media blogger/designer who loves sharing ideas and making awesome stuff. I write for @SiteProNews @BlogHerald @Socialnomics. Health tweets: @foodierx

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