Anonymity And Privacy

When it comes to connecting and communicating, there’s no shortage of choices available to teenagers (and the rest of us). How these different options work and impact the way teens communicate is worth exploring. There are three camps when it comes to social and messaging apps: private, semi-private and anonymous.

Anonymous apps, like Whisper or Yik Yak, offer consequence-free communication for posters. Names aren’t used and many of these apps don’t collect phone number, email addresses or other personal information. Of course, just because the sender’s name isn’t used doesn’t mean names are missing all together. You can frequently find people named in posts and rarely in a positive way.

This has had consequences on the perception of these apps. Yik Yak, for example, detects when someone is near a middle school or high school (it’s intended for 17+) and won’t display posts or allow them to be made. This is likely due to some of the concerns around bullying and threats of violence.

Private social/messaging apps like Facebook and iMessage are easier to understand. Even if they don’t use real names, these apps are all about individuals and groups connecting with each other. These treat identity and privacy in different ways. Some use real names, others use user names. Some store messages on servers, others do not. Some keep content indefinitely while others let it evaporate after a time.

Finally, there are semi-private apps like Instagram, Kik and Tango where posts and profiles may be public but conversations are not. These apps can also allow information to be viewed and shared in ways the poster might not have originally anticipated.

All three types of apps have their place but one interesting issue affecting all of them is the conflation of anonymity and privacy. I decided to get some other perspectives on this issue so asked people involved with app development, marketing and advertising for their thoughts:

“Open and productive communications are impossible when one party is hiding behind the armor of anonymity. Consider the difference between driving and walking. No one swears at strangers as they pass on the sidewalk, but it’s rampant when we’re behind the wheel. In digital communications anonymity can be harmful to brands and individuals alike whereas private, or even semi-private communications, offer a nice alternative to the wide exposure of public comments. Think Angie’s List reviews as opposed to anonymous blog comments from Internet trolls.” — Beth Monaghan, principal, InkHouse Media

“Teens have flocked to apps like Snapchat and Yik Yak; but as we know, their claims of security and privacy are not exactly watertight. This is because messages sent using those services are stored on servers, meaning they can be — and have been — compromised. This can be a problem for teens since they are notorious for acting before they think — so their need for assured privacy is almost a safety net — as is the ability to delete a regrettable text message after the fact.” — Greg Parker, founder of Raketu, creator of the RakEM app

“Teens are an expressive crowd and they crave public gratification, whether its favorites/likes, comments or just having a photo added to a stream. We’ve discovered it’s best to offer multiple communications layers — anonymous when needed, private when they want to share with a friend, and public when they can get larger feedback.” — William Agush, founder of Shuttersong

“Anonymity means not being accountable for what you say — and usually not controlling who hears or reads it. Privacy, on the other hand, not only gives you control over who hears what you say but also makes you accountable for it. Young people should consider whether they are willing to be accountable for what they share on anonymous apps — sometimes posting is the brave thing to do, and sometimes it’s just the opposite.” — Jenny Mirken, founder of Jet

“Effective communication often comes down to truth and honesty. If you want the public to view your comments as truth, then be honest about who you are. If the truth is not appropriate for public consumption, keep it private. And, in those instances when anonymity can help uncover the truth (market research, for instance), only share it with those who need to know.” — Jeff Freedman, CEO, Small Army

The points about accountability and honesty ring true. For teens — or anyone — to communicate there needs to be some knowledge of who is on the other side of the screen. Sure, it can be liberating to say whatever is on your mind without worrying about the consequences but can it be the basis for a two-way conversation?

For brands that want to establish meaningful connections with teenage customers, it’s hard to imagine the anonymous route being at all effective since anonymity by its very nature negates the benefit of the brand. Private or semi-private channels make more sense and there are great examples appearing every day. To be successful, keep the channels of communication clear, open and honest — and for goodness sake, don’t confuse privacy with anonymity.

Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

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Avoiding “Jackie Paper” Syndrome

As the app space has matured, marketers have become savvier about the cost of acquiring loyal customers. There’s one notable exception: those marketers who are targeting tweens and teens. This group is apparently happy to be in constant customer acquisition mode, forever welcoming new customers through the front door while watching them exit through the back. This is Jackie Paper syndrome.

For those of you unfamiliar with Jackie Paper, I suggest you listen to Puff the Magic Dragon. In the song, “painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.” That’s what happens every day as hard-won customers age out of services and move on. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem to make sense. Sure, there are some products that are designed for people of certain ages (baby food, Depends, etc.) but apps and social platforms don’t need to be among them, do they?

While COPPA does draw a bright line between teens and not quite teens, it seems silly for companies catering to young people not to have a plan for carrying those customers forward into their teen years and beyond. This is a classic example of Jackie Paper syndrome. Once good money has been invested in attracting young consumers, why not create a path forward to maintain those relationships?

This seems to be a sensible approach but one rarely taken. As digital platforms and services become ubiquitous for young and old alike, creating services that comply with COPPA and are open to everyone seems like a pretty obvious idea. What stands in the way of this happening? It isn’t the technology or the ways the technology is used. In the end, it seems to boil down to the odd belief that experiences designed for tweens and teens have no place in the adult world.

How absurd.

While not many adults or older teens are going to sign up for sites or services that are clearly designed for young teens, kids who want to get involved with social are in a quandary. They can either a) stick to kids-only services or b) lie about their ages. If they take the first approach they’re going to find themselves segregated in the magical land of Honah Lee (another Puff the Magic Dragon reference FYI) that they’ll soon outgrow. If they choose the second approach they’ll find themselves trying to reconcile reality with the fiction the created when they were underage.

Is there a problem with finding yourself in an age-specific realm? Not necessarily. The biggest issue is attempting to transpose that persona once the post-COPPA world becomes a reality. All of the content and connections crafted as a tween fall by the wayside once the COPPA barrier is breached. The result is inconvenience as a new service needs to be identified and a new identity established.

Perhaps this isn’t that big a deal. Perhaps kids under 13 welcome the opportunity to reinvent themselves when they cross the magical threshold into their teen years. Perhaps all of the content and all of those connections lose their meaning overnight. Perhaps, but probably not. Marketers need to rethink their relationships with the tween and early teen set.

There’s nothing to prevent the creation of a social app that’s open to everyone. Such an app – one that provided all of the capabilities that consumers have come to expect from a social platform – could be crafted in a way that is age-agnostic. Taking this approach would allow marketers to treat their relationships with tweens and teens as extensible rather than temporary.

This approach would also allow young people to preserve and expand their online identities from the present into the future. Does this mean all members should be treated identically regardless of their age? Not at all. The fact is people of different ages have different expectations around privacy and the social experience, but those differences can be expressed in a single app rather than discreet ones based on age.

Given the cost of acquiring a customer, and the growing focus on customer lifetime value, falling prey to Jackie Paper syndrome seems a shame. It will also lead to marketers’ tears – like Puff’s green scales – falling like rain.

This post originally appeared on MediaPost Engage:Teens.