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15 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 10:58am

Why do “anonymous ask” apps keep coming back?

Curious Cat, the latest in a long line of anonymous question sites, is the purest expression of the confessional internet.

By Roisin Kiberd

Late at night on a website, a woman is being asked questions by a stranger.

How tall are you? What size are your feet? Would you have a problem with dating a vegan?

The questions chip away at her, trait by trait, body part by body part, as though assembling a fantasy in pieces.

What size bra do you wear? Do you wear any clothes in bed?

The questions become increasingly overt, the intentions of the asker clearer. She replies to each question publicly, one by one. Reading through them feels like intruding on private exchanges sent in a relationship, one where one of the participants keeps their identity entirely secret.

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The site is Curious Cat, a social networking tool where anonymous questions or “confessions” can be sent to anyone you’re following on Twitter. It has gathered a niche following in recent months, the latest in a line of anonymous apps including Whisper, YikYak and Ask.fm.

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Originally most social media was anonymous – forums and later sites like MySpace encouraged the use of fake identities. But today Facebook’s name policy and Twitter’s cult of personal branding demand that we use our real identities and the chance to hide behind a mask is rare outside of role-playing games. A study published earlier this summer showed that even trolls are increasingly waiving their anonymity, spewing hate speech under their real names.

So why does the “anonymous ask” keep coming back? What is it that makes it such a tempting prospect?

I spoke to Marco Balbona, who created Curious Cat with his cousin, Nuno, earlier this year. “10 April was our release date,” he told me over Skype. “It’s been going well in general, gaining users.” Initially the site would crash every few days due to demand, but they’ve worked to optimise it and iron out technical glitches.

The biggest problem is one of moderation – Balbona wanted to improve on Ask.fm’s bullying problem, which has seen the site linked to the suicides of several teenagers. But now that Curious Cat has users writing in Italian, Arabic and Polish – as well as English and his native Spanish – the site is becoming harder to keep up with.

For now you can have offensive posts filtered out, or, if you prefer, have every question moderated before it reaches your inbox. Balbona said “We’ve had a few people complaining about bullying, but we’ve given users the tools to prevent it.” He sees the site as a way for users to get confessions off their chests, an act of rebellious honesty against social media’s calculated cynicism. “It provides a ‘self-service’, I suppose.”

Visually, Curious Cat appears friendlier than Ask.fm; the design is fuzzy, kawaii and a bit tongue in cheek. Even the name is knowing, implying that what you learn there might kill you. Scroll through mentions of the site on Twitter, which have climbed steadily in recent months, and you’ll notice a pattern of users who hesitantly sign up (“Think I’m gunno get that curious cat just to watch the abuse roll in”) and those who quit in disgust, or disappointment (frequently over a lack of questions rather than being on the receiving end of abuse).

I asked some friends who use Curious Cat about their experiences with the site. “It’s internet car crash viewing”, said one, Ciara. “Twitter has gone a bit Coronation Street since it was introduced.” “It’s strange,” another, Anna, replied in a Twitter DM. “You’re flirting with something you know can be nasty at any moment.” There’s something confessional even to talking about Curious Cat itself; Anna mentioned that her circle use it most on hungover mornings. It lends itself to self-laceration and regret.

In every case they had found the site through other people’s Twitter feeds, then started an account of their own. Several users mentioned that because the questions are posted publicly, you immediately have support if a troll shows up. Between friends, it can be a way to send compliments and boost each other’s confidence. “It’s not so spooky,” said Sarah (most of the users, I’ve noticed, are young and female). “People will compliment you if you know you’re looking for it on the internet, my experience has told me.”

In this sense, Curious Cat distills social media down to its two purest purposes: the desire to receive attention, and the desire to invade other people’s privacy.

Still, I can’t decide if it’s liberating or troubling; the thought of courting one’s own trolls, giving everything away to the cybernetic ether. More than blogs, Reddit AMAs or personal essays, Curious Cat is peak “Confessional Internet”.

I asked Balbona what the strangest thing he’s encountered on Curious Cat has been, since launching the site. “Oh god,” he sighs. “There are so many cliché Curious Cat moments. You get those really creepy sex posts, which users for some reason feel the need to tell people about.” But more than those, Balbona encounters another kind of problem: “There are a lot of people bullying themselves. That happens very, very often. Also people who compliment themselves.”

Are these users pre-emotively trolling, proofing themselves against future abuse? Or are they trying to create an impression of being important enough to hate?

Curious Cat’s questions prompt further questions in turn, like whether trolling and online confession are two sides of the same coin. Sites like Curious Cat let us sabotage our virtual identities in the name of intimacy, as if in a bid to admit they’re a construction. But even this confession might itself be just an act. We might not be comparing ourselves to others: we might be comparing ourselves to ourselves.