Building a business on hot air
Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? There’s an app for that

In December last year, online magazine Slate published an interactive feature called ‘The Year of Outrage’: a calendar displaying day by day the various outpourings of invective and opprobrium that swept across the digital sphere in 2014. These paroxysms of emotion were short lived – who can now remember the name of the teen who took a selfie at Auschwitz in June, or the British physicist at the centre of November’s “shirtstorm”? Although the essence of these outbursts will be familiar to anyone exposed to, say, the Daily Mail's efforts to provoke its readership, Slate’s itemisation demonstrated the extent to which outrage is now a permanent fixture of the digital news cycle.

The force driving this trend is not difficult to divine. The economic viability of web publishing is mostly reliant on metrics of attention, and one reliable way to garner attention – to go viral – is to appeal to and rouse your audience’s emotions. Outrage is simply more profitable than mere information.

A number of recently created anonymous social media services also appear to be based on enabling the expression of people’s outrage. Capitalising on the disinhibition that comes with anonymity, these apps offer users a space for unrestrained and uncivil communication.

Founded in Melbourne in late 2013, Vent – as the name suggests – encourages users to let loose on subjects that annoy, excite or infuriate them. StartupSmart called it one of the social media startups to watch in 2015, and reports that since its launch in January 2014, Vent has attracted more than 10,000 users, and raised more than $100,000 in funds. Recurring topics on Vent’s feed include the drama of unrequited love, the social disappointments of family and friends, and the inconsistencies of public transport.

Similar US apps have managed to raise considerable sums from venture capital sources. In July last year, the New York Times reported that anonymous message-posting app Secret had raised over US$25 million, while a rival operation, Whisper, had raised US$39 million. Such figures suggest a market-based confidence in the economic potential of such services, but the ethical questions around these apps are yet to be resolved.

The promise of de-identified users is key to the success of these services. Facebook’s accessibility as a resource for prospective employers to learn about an applicant remains obvious, and many social media users are reluctant to tarnish their public image with intemperate postings (Vent initially asked users to link their account to Facebook; now it does not).

Anonymity offers users a certain freedom of expression, but it also gives licence to indulge in their very worst tendencies, with little fear of repercussion. In the US, anonymous app YikYak has come under scrutiny for the severity of abuse that takes place on its service. 

Developed by two fraternity brothers at Furman University in South Carolina, the app first became popular with college students, among whom it was intended to be used as a kind of egalitarian message board. But the app has also become a venue for bullying, harassment and hateful, vitriolic messages. The developers have found it necessary to introduce a function that prompts users to reflect on the wisdom (and lawfulness) of writing posts containing certain keywords, such as “Jew” and “bomb”.

The abusive nature of much of YikYak’s content has led to calls for the service to be censored, or even banned. In some cases, the company has co-operated with these initiatives. In Chicago and across the US, it has erected “geo-fences” around some high schools, which prevent students from accessing the app while they are within a certain set of GPS coordinates.

Vent is notable among this cohort of apps for the effort to which it has gone to determine the character of communication taking place on it. Users must begin a post by classifying their remarks as sitting under one of six broad categories – “fear”, “surprise”, “sadness”, “anger”, “affection”, “happiness” – and then one of five sub-categories; for “anger”, these are “angry”, “furious”, “frustrated”, “disgusted” and “annoyed”.

This second classification is tagged above the published post, allowing readers to gauge the valence of the sentiment below. Users can employ a number of pre-packaged responses to others’ posts: there is a “fave”-type star icon, as well as “WTF”, “OMG”, “LOL” and “HUG”.

Observers who bemoan the deleterious effect that the outrage-provoking publishing model has had on contemporary discourse might well roll their eyes at this: here is a service that enmeshes its users in a system with only 30 blunt categories available for expression. Imagine that each of these 30 categories represents a feeling that a virally successful headline must appeal to, and the logic of this construction feels familiar.

But despite these restrictions, Vent can – at least this far into its lifespan – be differentiated from the worst of YikYak by the social feeling apparent among its users. Its creators have claimed to be surprised by the warmth of some corners of its community, and consider the support the app offers to users in distress to be an aspect worth protecting. In the week or so that I was checking the app regularly, I saw a few confessions of suicidal intent, as well as gratitude for the support other users offered.

Whereas YikYak posts can be wholly unattributed, Vent users are invited to create a profile, and so – as with Twitter – accounts can be followed, blocked, replied to, “liked” and tracked across the platform.

The outcome of this directive suggests that pseudonymity, rather than pure anonymity, may be a key to ensuring emotional equilibrium on social media. Twitter, for instance, allows users to generate pseudonymous accounts, and has had great difficulties in dealing with abuse, but it also sustains an air of respectability – users can choose to vent, or sustain a public profile, or both.

As with most new internet startups, the ultimate usefulness – and economic potential – of Vent’s service is yet to be totally clear. Its appeal to pure, over-determined emotionality may appear cynical to some, but the transparency of feeling this encourages in its users may have broader potential. For instance, Vent’s founders have speculated on the possibility of allowing professional counselling services to be accessed directly through the app, which a recent New Yorker article on the success of a text-only help line in the US suggests may be viable.

During the time that I checked Vent, its most popular posts were often attributed to a bisexual high school student in California, who writes prolifically and confidently about the social and sexual frustrations of adolescence. This user has around 15,000 followers on Vent, and his account details direct them to his Instagram, where he has around 42,000 followers.

The example of this young man suggests that just as YouTube can serve as a platform for confessional video bloggers (like Perth-based teen superstar Troye Sivan) so Vent, and services like it, may yet become a tool for aspiring social media stars. In the digital sphere, it seems, the economic potential of incontinent emotion is far from exhausted. 

James Robert Douglas
James Robert Douglas is a Melbourne-based cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow. @@jamesrobdouglas

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