****I have updated this piece at the bottom after meeting with After School’s founders.*****
A year ago, “After School” was banned from Apple’s App Store. Today, they announced they raised $16.4 million. The app was banned for the apparent danger involved with marketing an anonymous forum app like Yik-Yak to high school and middle school students. What changed? How did the app go from being kicked out to having millions of users and raising a large Series A? Though I can’t use the app since I’m well past my high school years and After School requires Facebook verification, my researched belief is that the majority of content posted on After School is computer generated to not only bloat user numbers, but create a false safe place where students can feel better about themselves, instead of being crushed by the horrible statements anonymity can lead to. Though this might be a short-term positive, in the long run this paints a horrible picture of the future of technology.
Google autocompletes to the suggestion that After School is fake, and the internet is full of examples from people claiming the app is posting fake content within the feed.
There are lots of positive iTunes reviews, but there are many complaints that read like the reviews below:
A Twitter search sees the same complaints:
While random tweets and reviews on iTunes are hardly science, it gets better, so stay with me. For now — let’s assume we believe at least some of the content on After School is computer generated by the company and not user created.
They require Facebook login
While falling down the black hole of attempting to understand what was fishy with After School, I began to believe that the company might be using your Facebook login information to learn the names and identities of your Facebook friends who attend your school in order to create fake content from these individuals. Right after that thought, I found this tweet:
I immediately went to After School’s website to find out what they said about requiring the Facebook login for sign up. After all, why would a new social network require the use of another social network’s verification? Almost all new apps allow for Facebook and at least one other sign in option.
After School claims they use your Facebook login to verify that you’re a member of the school community you’re chatting with. This makes sense. When Facebook began, they wanted you to verify with a .edu address but not all middle schools are going to provide an email address. Using your Facebook graph is now the de facto way to verify your identity. However, the image above clearly states that it uses your Facebook friends information to verify your identity. This is where it gets interesting.
If I’m six degrees from Kevin Bacon, I’m one degree from everyone at my high school. Especially on Facebook. This means that getting the Facebook login of only a few people from a high school could theoretically create fake profiles for the majority of the school.
Positive Comments Feel Better Than Bullying
If we’re to believe that some of the content and users on After School are fabricated, we have to ask ourselves: why? Why would a company fake users? One simple answer is to bloat numbers, but I believe that the answer here might be much more complex.
After School was banned because of horrible threats of bullying and violence. Today, it has a strong stance against bullying that it shouts from the rooftops. Though active fake accounts can bloat user numbers and help with securing that next round of financing, it could also theoretically safeguard young students from the threats of bullying. If every user gets a kind comment when they sign up for After School isn’t that a good thing? If we let our minds wander and consider they might be artificially created, does that still make it a good thing?
As human beings, we crave validation. I was never weaker than I was in high school and middle school; I think this is the same for most everyone. If there was an app where peers anonymously complimented me, I would have used it constantly. I believe this is what After School does. It creates accounts based on the collections of profiles it attaches to your school via the Facebook social graph. It then takes those names and creates anonymous posts that don’t bully and therefore don’t really cause any issues. You hear that someone has a crush on John Y. and maybe you tell your friends. You sign in and someone anonymously says they’re thinking about you and it makes your day. It’s a paradise of anonymity where the chaos of teenagedom doesn’t exist. Is this ok? Is the goal to grow up a strong and unique individual despite going through bullying, or would we rather hide our next generation from the harsh truths of reality?
I’ll leave you with this:
This is not what real people talk about when they’re speaking anonymously:
As always, you can reach me at [email protected]
After writing this piece, the founders of After School (Michael and Cory) contacted me and asked if we could meet. There were a few things they felt I misinterpreted and wanted to clarify for me, which I’ve outlined below:
Apparently, updates to the Facebook API that the After School app team claims happened prior to their development have made it so that a Facebook friends API call will only return the friends who also use the application.
My conclusion about fake users stemmed from an assumption that a user’s friends were returned from a Facebook API call. Since this is not the case, how can we explain that some people have claimed they have accounts on After School without ever making them? During my meeting with the founders, they informed me of a feature where users can discuss other people from their school without those individuals having an account. It seems that this creates the appearance of an account without said individual opting into the creation of one. While this is a very different scenario from the one I outlined, it still highlights that there do appear to be users that aren’t actually people who have downloaded and signed up for the application.
It seems that there is a feature in After School that can create the appearance of fake content even though it is “created” by users. When you go to reply to a post from someone, After School will offer you pre-scripted responses that only use positive language. The claim from the founders is that these suggested responses help insecure individuals come up with something to say but it’s easy to see why they are often perceived by the greater community as fake content.
Michael and Cory were really nice guys when I met them. We spoke openly and candidly about anonymity and I truly appreciated that they reached out to speak with me. Though there were some aspects of my piece that they claimed I misinterpreted, one truth remains — in an anonymous system, the company behind it should be anonymous as well.
There is no way to prove that everything listed above is completely fraudulent and that After School is innocent of any questionable actions. It could be that design choices by their team have led to lots of users claiming that the content is fake. It could also be that there are both fake profiles and content on the After School app. I do believe that the team at After School is well intentioned; they’re attempting to build a safe web space for their users. However, they are very dedicated to squashing the negative commentary and lifting up the positive. They did not deny this. We are still left with a scenario where a company decides what is good and what is bad for kids to see. That is a very interesting and complicated issue indeed.
Many users claim there are lies throughout the app, yet with the calmest sincerity the founders claim otherwise to my face. As the world of childhood moves more and more online, we all need to be aware that the way we shape this “fake” reality has a deep impact on the future.
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