The Sidechat storm: An anonymous social media application takes over Tufts campus

By Miriam Vodosek
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Sidechat is arguably the hottest online development to have struck Tufts’ campus this year. It is a smartphone application where users can post short messages and images completely anonymously in a domain accessible to anyone with an active Tufts email account. 

On Sidechat, usernames do not exist. Other features include anonymous commenting, direct messaging between users and a system of points, known on Sidechat as “karma.” This feature tallies how many times a user’s posts or comments have been upvoted or downvoted: The karma level of an individual user can only be viewed by that user. The exception to this is a public leaderboard of the top ten levels of karma that users have reached — none of which are attached to a name. 

Sidechat was developed by the New York-based company Flower Ave Inc. The CEOs of Flower Ave Inc. declined the Daily’s request for an interview.

Prithvi Shahani, a first-year in the School of Engineering, is an active Sidechat user and claims to hold one of the ten highest karma rankings at Tufts Sidechat at the time of his interview with the Daily. 

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Shahani estimated that Sidechat surfaced at Tufts at the beginning of the spring 2022 semester. He described how Tufts students have engaged with the platform.

I feel like it’s just a way for people to relate with their community and share funny memes that people at Tufts can relate to, or talk about what’s currently going on, such as … recently, some Senator visited, I believe, so everyone was like, … ‘Oh, my God, Elizabeth Warren was here, oh my God, she used the washroom in the Commons,’” Shahani said.

J.P. de Ruiter, a professor in the Computer Science and Psychology departments, shared his concerns with the application’s anonymous feature, particularly as the lack of usernames on the platform disables users from verifying the continuity of the original participants.

I’m a bit worried about [Sidechat] as a dialogue researcher because it does take away something extremely important in dialogue, which is coherence,” de Ruiter said. Having no identity is something [different] than having anonymity. Anonymity is that there is an identity at the other end, but you don’t know where they live, and how old they are, and how they look, but there’s still a unique identity. Whereas [on Sidechat], you just also get rid of identity. 

Shahani added that it can be difficult to determine whether the contents are credible in the first place. 

Honestly, I just don’t believe anything on the app … I’ll just assume everything on the app’s a joke. That makes my life so much easier,” Shahani said.

Samuel Sommers, professor and department chair of psychology, elaborated on the implications of Sidechat’s anonymity from a psychological perspective. 

Being anonymous makes us feel less accountable to some of the social expectations and norms that otherwise govern our behavior. … People put things online that they would never ever say to other people in regular conversations face-to-face,” Sommers said.

Illustrating Sommers’ insight, de Ruiter cited the lyrics of Brad Paisley’s “Online” (2007).

If you just look at the lyrics you’ll see … it’s about a kind of a loser type sitting in [his parent’s basement]. But online, he’s like a superstar with a Maserati and 17 girlfriends. It’s really interesting how Brad Paisley sings about that,” de Ruiter said. “So [the song] suggests … that there can be, of course, a very big difference between people’s online personality and real personality.”

Overall, Shahani recalled that activity on Sidechat increased after the leaderboard was introduced around what he estimated to be late February to early March. He also noticed a general shift towards more discussion around controversial subject matters over time.

At the beginning, it was pretty much really basic things like campus happenings, but people started actually making memes for the app. But at the same time, people have also started [talking about] edgy, controversial topics on the app since it’s anonymous and it can’t be linked to them,” Shahani said. “[It’s] sometimes good to have that kind of discourse but at the same time, [it’s] sometimes bad since their opinions could be harmful to the community.”

In light of this development, Sommers and de Ruiter underscored the salience of community standards and moderation for social media platforms such as Sidechat.

It does feel like things can deteriorate on anonymous message boards to the point where they have to be moderated or they have to have some community standards in place,” Sommers said. “The kinds of bullying and kinds of problematic commentary that maybe we as a community don’t want to see … [is] always going to be at risk [on anonymous platforms].”

According to Shahani, it appears that Sidechat may hire students to act as moderators on the app. Shahani was reached out to by Sidechat to become a moderator himself. He was not interested in the role, however, and he subsequently declined the offer. 

Shahani shared that he has been banned from Sidechat multiple times, ranging from about one hour to 48 hours. When users are banned from the platform, they can still access the app, upvote and downvote, but they cannot post or send direct messages, Shahani detailed.

Shahani shared his misgivings about the way moderation is carried out on Sidechat.

I feel like they selectively choose what content they want on the platform and … that’s a really dangerous game to play because that pretty much, … could like control the narrative. … For example, I believe [there] was some sort of conflict outside of Hodgdon like a week or two ago, and they were banning people left and right for that,” Shahani said. “Otherwise, … if there were fights on the app, or people going full anti-masker back when [COVID-19] was extremely bad, they were cool with that kind of content. So, I’m not really sure what’s up with that.”

Sidechat does indeed have community guidelines, yet the only way the Daily was able to access them was through a hyperlink buried in their terms of service.

Brian Schaffner, Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies, first heard about Sidechat through a Slack channel of current and former students from his Public Opinion Lab. Schaffner suspects that self-moderation might naturally take place on Sidechat because each unique user belongs to the same institution.

“An app that’s sort of specific to one university is likely, even if it’s anonymous, …  to be less problematic just because … there’s already a sense of community, like a sense of physical community here,” Schaffner said.

Moving forward, Schaffner added that Sidechat has the potential to shape wider campus public opinion as the application continues to become more popular among Tufts students. 

“People probably go on [Sidechat] to feel some sense of validation, … [which] can probably help to crystallize opinion, I guess, in a more aggregate way. … I think that would have an effect on public opinion in a way that might matter beyond the app,” Schaffner said.

As Sidechat is still in the early stages of development, its users are the primary determinants of the ways in which students will engage on the forum. Sommers underscored the responsibility of the application’s users in this context.

“What I would suggest is that if people feel like an anonymous platform like this is a useful part of the Tufts conversation, then, you know, use it for good,” Sommers said. “I’m skeptical because sometimes these things don’t go [in] that direction. But hopefully we can make the best of this platform while it’s around and have it be a plus for the university and not … a source of stress or disparagement.”

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