A student anonymity service has been pulled from the App Store -- and that might have saved someone's life
After School, an application that allowed students to anonymously gossip with their peers, has been pulled from the App Store after it was used to share a school shooting threat in Detroit. This is the second time the application has been pulled from Apple's marketplace for hosting threats.
The application was also criticized for making it easier for students to cyberbully each other -- officials from several Livingston County, Michigan school districts warned parents about the app's use as a tool to harass students through its anonymous, school-specific digital messaging board. And it kept its focus on students even after it was allowed back in the App Store with a 17+ rating.
Companies behind anonymous services have long struggled to make sure their product doesn't become a cesspool of faceless vitriol. (Most of them have, anyway -- Secret's chief executive didn't particularly care about his service encouraging teen suicides, so long as it remained popular.) Those efforts have been largely unsuccessful, and have resulted in the deaths of several teenagers.
There was Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old from Long Island who killed herself after she was harassed on Formspring, an anonymous question-and-answer service now called Spring.me. There was Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old from England who committed suicide after she was subjected to cyberbullying on Ask.fm, a similar question-and-answer service. Others have also committed suicide after being bullied on other services, some anonymity-focused, others not.
Perhaps the most notable example of an anonymous service curbing bullying is Yik Yak, the chat app that was criticized when it first started to gain popularity because it was, unsurprisingly, used by high school students in Chicago to bully each other. The company's response was to ban its app from being used at middle and high schools around the United States, as the company told Wired:
Within a week, the team partnered with another startup called Maponics, which supplied Yik Yak with location data on 130,000 school locations. That enabled the company to block access to the app at 85 percent of the country’s schools in one fell swoop. 'Since then, we get emails everyday or so from administrators of schools to make sure they’re blocked, which they almost always are, and if they’re not we add them to the list,' [Yik Yak co-founder Brooks] Buffington says. 'That list is growing everyday.'But where Yik Yak has voluntarily prevented its service from operating in many schools, After School has (obviously) taken a different tack. The service requires its users to log in via Facebook to "prove" they attend a school before being taken to its anonymous messaging board. It's doing the exact opposite of what has at least mitigated cyberbullying and other abuse on Yik Yak.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that After School has been used to post threats, share sexually explicit content, and assist in cyberbullying. Nor should Apple's decision to then pull the app from its App Store. This application combines the worst aspects of every anonymous service that came before it -- hopefully, in this case, its spread can be stopped before another teenager is bullied into taking their own lives by peers who use anonymous tools to avoid responsibility for their actions.