Daniel Singer understands the marketing value of being a 14-year-old app creator. "People want to move to newer platforms suited for people in their demographic," he says. "I am a teen, so I have a decent picture of what they want."
The app Singer co-founded with his father, Backchat, attempts to paint that picture. It enables anonymous messaging between social network connections. But just as Snapchat is not necessarily about privacy, Backchat has less to do with the desire to be anonymous than with the desire to break from the conversational confines of established social media.
First of all, it’s not actually anonymous. You need to be connected to someone through Facebook or Google+ before you can send them a message, and the app gives the recipient clues about your identity. Those clues might be where you go to school, your gender, or your interests. If the original hints aren't enough to pinpoint your identity, the recipient can purchase more clues (9 clues for $.99).
If Backchat is not actually that anonymous, then what does its anonymous messaging system accomplish? A few things, says Singer:
Avoiding Snap Judgments: "When you don’t have your name attached to it, there’s a different social weight attributed to it," Singer says. "On Facebook, if you post something, people view that content differently based on whether it’s their best friend, a friend they met in high school, or just some person they know, who they know their name." In other words, Backchat allows your recipient to judge what you’re saying before they judge who said it.
Discouraging Bullies: "When you want to bully someone, one of the main drivers is you look for that reward at the end," Singer says. "Whether that’s a laugh, a smile, approval from your peers, a Facebook like, whatever that is." Backchat is one-on-one, so there's nobody else around to laugh at mean comments. And even if there were, it would not be instantly clear who deserved "credit."
Fun: "When you don’t know who it is, you’re driven by curiosity to figure out who is messaging you," Singer says. It's a game.
Backchat is Singer’s second attempt at entrepreneurship. When he was 12, he created a website called Youtell that allowed for one-way anonymous messages such as "FYI, you have food in your teeth." He and his dad decided to move all efforts to Backchat when it started to gain traction. In the last three months, the company has added 100,000 users, most of whom are between the ages of 14 and 20. In December, Backchat raised $200,000 of seed funding from a small Brazillian VC firm called ArpexCapital.
As Facebook loses steam with teenagers, the tech world has been eager to crown a replacement communication channel for the cool kids. Candidates include Snapchat, which seemingly disappears messages after they're received; Whisper, an anonymous digital cork board for confessions; and WhatsApp, a group messaging platform. These apps’ popularity among young users adds up to more than just "sexting," "secrets," and "chat," which might be why established players have often failed when they try to mimic them.
The mission of Singer’s anonymous app, for instance, is not anonymity, but to "make texting fun again." Maybe none of us adults had realized that texting had stopped being fun. Or that it was supposed to be fun.
"I wouldn’t say it’s not fun, I would just say it’s become less of a novelty and kind of become utilitarian," Singer says. "I mean, emoticons used to have a lot of meaning, but it’s kind of degraded and become integrated into society, and it’s not something that’s new and exciting."
We don't have time to ask what happens to Backchat’s fun factor if it succeeds, like texting and Facebook, at becoming "integrated into society." Singer has to get to Spanish class.