After School, Generation Z, and the Localization of Anonymous Expression

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Broadly speaking, there are bullies and there are the bullied. Some people might suggest they are both — but most of us were among the latter camp while back in high school. Our memories can serve up painfully detailed recollections being publicly chided by some kid or other as friends stood idle and teachers looked the other way. This was a local, physical-world occurrence where the results lingered in everyone’s mind’s eye for days, if not longer.

Back then, our routines varied little, so the opportunity to relive the anxiety of those moments presented themselves with merciless frequency. It was a nasty business, but at very least you could choose flight over fight and bolt.

But in our meta world of apps mirroring life, there’s nowhere left to run.

Let’s go back to a different kind of bullying, back to the early-ish days of human online interaction when suddenly we could bring people down a few notches without risk of getting decked. Newsgroups, if you’ll recall, were (and are) loosely arranged message boards on almost any topic imaginable. Enjoy blue stuffed animals? Join your brethren. Beer-making’s your thing? Pull up a stool. It was fairly harmless, and to some a magical entry point to a virtual kingdom where the worldwide neighborhood shrunk to fit within a 640×480 screen.

Flame wars inevitably arose, usually following a devolution of conversation from semi-cordial to suspicious to idiotic. Seemingly all conversations followed the same path, demonstrating the ignorance and stupidity that anonymity could help engender. The weak had a voice among the unknown among the loud among the cogent and the lost. This was a schoolyard without rules but retribution left no bloodied noses, no need to decide between fight or flight.

Anonymity and the Hyper-Closeness of Local
This combination of shrinking a space to a sort of hyper-closeness — ultimately “local” in all senses but physical — while still maintaining anonymity continues today in thousands of platforms from the commentary on businesses listed on Yelp to stories on local newspaper sites to all the burgeoning locally focused microsites. We’ve all seen the behavior of our friends on these threads, where they move from sensible people to trolls following some antagonistic exchange. Again, people devolve.

And if you think adults in those arenas carry themselves with an odd otherness you oughta see the kids. And perhaps you have: JuicyCampus, Yik Yak  and others opened a free-for-all for geo-connected youths to publicly shame (or, on occasion, praise) one another. Under the cloak of anonymity and the domain of local many lives were harmed, and worse.

School’s Out
Then came After School, the app that launched in 2014 by Michael Callahan and Cory Levy with a built-in locals-only filter and a target of high schoolers. Anonymous exchanges of thoughts and pictures quickly eroded into just what you might expect — bullying, shaming and all manner of other interactions. After School was banned by Apple for a while, then reinstated following some required changes.

Now investors (led by a VC named “Accomplice”), always on the hunt for smart ambitious folks to piggyback on, chimed in to the tune of nearly $17 million, along with followers. This comes simultaneous to a marketing campaign via the company’s blog wherein founder Callahan wrote earnestly about his initial goals for After School and how it sprang from his own experiences with bullying … all the efforts being made to assure kids in their local circles are not acting out and virtually hurting one another.

I’ve spoken with several teens about After School and the nature of proximity and anonymity in their communications. Some were not aware of the app but all have offered stories of how they and their friends use tricks on better-known platforms to tease and poke at people in their sphere — ways to remain anonymous while still making a point about someone without actually saying it. Will they try After School and similar local-focused tools to express themselves and communicate? Answer: Maybe until the next thing arrives.

Whether the social network survives could be more a story about local online engagement than anything else. Extrapolating these thousands of digital microcosms, created by After School for every public and private high school (not unlike the original The Facebook did for college), into the next stage of growth could tell a new story of local.

So we wanted to get a little more context about this from After School and talked to their content director Michael Luchies.

How important is the “local” element to the product (the fact that only people from the same place are interacting)?
The local aspect of After School is key, as it was designed to allow students to share and connect with their school.

When the app was released it came under fire as we all now know. Were you not aware this kind of behavior would occur on the service particularly with your CEO being someone who was bullied as a kid for self-expression?
We were well aware of the challenges we would face while building After School. With any good product or service, it grows and develops with its users. We knew we had created a strong product that fit a real need, but having established communities within 50 percent of the high schools in the United States in a couple of weeks was not what we had anticipated.

How have you provided, as was stated on your blog, safety from judgment?
In high school, we are all viewed a certain way by others, whether good or bad, true or untrue. We wanted to give each teen an equal playing field — a place where each message is taken seriously and heard by others.

Providing teens with a private place to share allows them to be themselves without being judged because of their name, race, age, or popularity. A teen doesn’t need to have 1,000 followers or friends within their school to be heard on After School.

Are you planning to widen the audience restrictions to more than one school?
There are no plans to widen the audience restrictions.

Are you looking at a revenue angle that allows, for instance, local merchants to advertise services to your users?
We have no immediate plans for monetizing what we provide. We’re truly focused on increasing the experience and safety of our app for the teens that use After School.

Other thoughts on the hyperlocal nature of anonymous communication?
With the right safety measures in place and by carefully constructing beneficial communities, anonymous communication and closed networks can add a lot of benefits to specific communities and neighborhoods.

RickRRick Robinson is SVP of Product for on-demand roadside assistance startup He is also an advisor to Street Fight. Follow him at @itsrickrobinson