Yousuf Bakshi, a junior at Harvard, recalls standing in line at 2 a.m. at El Jefe’s Taqueria in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to grab a late night snack after a recent night out. Mr. Bakshi, 20, noted that almost everyone in front of him was sitting in line on their phones, all scrolling through the same app: Sidechat.
“It’s an easy place to see all the jokes and gossip, and it really helps promote a lot of talk about the city,” Mr Bakshi said, comparing the app to Lady Whistledown’s gossip column on the Netflix series “Bridgerton.” “.
In recent months, Sidechat, a vibrant new app where users log in with college-affiliated email addresses and write anonymous messages visible only within their school community, has seen many downloads at universities including Harvard, Cornell, Tufts and Columbia. Campus newspapers have documented the app’s rapid growth. In March, The Cornell Daily Sun reported that “the app has quickly become a feature of Cornell’s social life.” In April, The Harvard Crimson reported that Sidechat is “taking the campus by storm”.
The premise isn’t new, but it’s irresistible to many students: an opportunity to chat with peers about what’s happening on campus, without their name being associated with what they’re saying. Posts will go live without pre-approval and will not be removed until later if a post is deemed to violate the platform guidelines. While some students find the secrecy harmless, others seem encouraged by the anonymity and, as is customary online, post caustic and hurtful comments. Now some students, many of whom are already numb from previous experiences with similar platforms, say they are sour on Sidechat, but they are still signing.
“It’s nice to post memes and recognizable things without revealing your identity,” said Mr Bakshi.
The founders of Sidechat have remained anonymous. A company representative, who did not disclose their name, said the founders would not comment on this article. The representative also declined to answer questions by email, including how many schools it currently operates at. Nearly a dozen student ambassadors contacted for this article declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests for comment.
Gossip, inside jokes and toxicity
For years, students flocked to anonymous confession pages on Facebook and Instagram (e.g. Harvard Confessions or Tufts Secrets) where they can submit messages that are then approved and posted by a moderator.
Recent Problems on America’s College Campuses
Formspring became popular in early 2010 because users could post questions and answers without having to identify themselves. It was soon filled with cyberbullies who would post threats and hurtful comments aimed at other teenage users. The site shut down in 2013, when its chief executive announced that maintenance costs had become unsustainable.
Last year, Yik Yak restarted after shutting down in 2017. The app was inundated with hate speech and intimidation, with some universities even banning it from their Wi-Fi networks.
“Anonymous apps are notorious for rapidly rising and falling in popularity,” said Ysabel Gerrard, a social media researcher at the University of Sheffield. “They are attracting a much larger and faster user base than their founders expect, leaving staff unprepared for the necessary scale of content moderation.”
But the growth rate of these platforms and the controversies surrounding them may be part of the appeal, she added. “It’s also common for teens to download new apps in the hopes that they’ll be more secure than their predecessors,” she said.
Rabiya Ismail, 22, a student at Tufts, said she downloaded Sidechat after seeing another student promoting the app on her class’ Facebook group. “It started out nice,” she says. “People were just making fun of campus and posting memes.”
But just a few weeks later, after seeing that the app was inundated with hateful messages, Ms. Ismail deleted it. “We’ve had a lot of xenophobic and racist comments,” she said. “If a low-income student makes a post complaining about campus wealth, there will always be a comment, ‘Well, I’m sorry you’re poor.’”
After Tufts announced last month that the university would require students to wear masks until the end of final exam season, the app was inundated with messages disparaging students with health conditions.
“There was a message that said, ‘I hope immunocompromised people get Covid now’, and it got a lot of votes before it was removed,” Ms Ismail said.
She ended up downloading Sidechat again because she didn’t want to miss out on the positive aspects of campus life it promoted. “Recently, Elizabeth Warren was randomly on our campus and someone posted that she’s in the campus center, which got people talking,” said Ms. Ismail.
Nicholas Gray, 20, a freshman at Cornell, said his biggest complaint about the app was the way it was moderated. Because the moderators may be students, many of the posts have been “moderated in a superficial way,” he said, according to his experience.
Harvard, Columbia and Tufts did not respond to requests for comment, and representatives from Brown University and Cornell said the schools had no affiliation with Sidechat.
“This is a third-party app with no university involvement,” said Brian Clark, a spokesperson for Brown University. “The dynamics of online communities are of course complex, especially where anonymity plays a role.”
Cookies for downloads
Students said it felt like the app had become popular overnight. Kristin Merrilees, 20, a sophomore at Barnard College in Manhattan who has a partnership with Columbia, said that one day, out of the blue, she noticed several peers had posted about it on their Instagram stories. She saw people setting up tables to promote the app on the quad, and an email was sent to her entire sorority, saying that the group could earn $3 from Sidechat for every member who downloaded it.
The email, which was reviewed by DailyExpertNews, described the app to potential promoters as “basically like a Yik Yak who is only in Columbia.”
The suggestion of a school-specific experience seems to be central to Sidechat’s marketing pitch: student ambassadors are brought in to give the app campus credibility; separate Instagram accounts market the app with inside jokes unique to each university; even the app interface differs from user to user and reflects the school colors of the student accessing it.
TyKerius Monford, a freshman at Brown, worked as an ambassador for Sidechat. Mr Monford, 19, said he heard of the opportunity when a chairman of a club he was a member of said she was working with Sidechat and that they were looking for student contractors to get it off the ground.
“Brown has a pretty big startup culture and I wanted to be involved that way,” he said. Monford helped spread the word about the app on social media, and he made several posts on Sidechat to fill the feed, he said.
Amina Salahou, 19, a freshman at Harvard, said she received $20 for posting Sidechat on her Instagram. She also spent a day promoting the app on campus, making $20 an hour. In just one day, she and the other students promoting on the ground got 700 people to download Sidechat by offering them cookies, Ms Salahou added.
She said she heard about the opportunity through a friend involved in the release and now likes to use the app as a way to keep up with what her peers are talking about.
“My friends and I no longer share memes in our group chat,” she said. “We all just go to Sidechat.”