Over the last several years, a number of social media and dating platforms have begun emphasizing users’ real names. Facebook started requiring people sign up with their “authentic” names in 2014. Twitter invited anyone to apply to be “verified”—meaning Twitter certified they were who they claimed—in 2016. In December, OkCupid said it would no longer allow prospective daters to use names like “sexgirl_420.”
That call to de-anonymize the internet found renewed support last year, after Russian propagandists—often posing as Americans—flooded platforms like Twitter and Facebook during 2016 US presidential campaign. Mark Cuban demanded Twitter and Facebook “confirm a real name and real person behind every account.” Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, meanwhile, have long argued that anonymity is crucial for democracy because it allows marginalized voices to speak without the fear of retribution.
It’s not hard to understand why platforms might want users to go by the names they use in real life. It’s easier to sell advertisements if you can tell companies what kinds of people will see them, and there’s a hope that people using their real identities will act more civil online. But a relatively new, smaller social network called Amino Apps isn’t buying it.
The mobile-first platform aimed at teens is organized similarly to Reddit—which also doesn’t require real names—but has the emotional, nerdy attitude of Tumblr. Amino Apps CEO and co-founder Ben Anderson believes anonymity is integral to self-expression—and the way the platform engineered identity has uniquely shaped how it functions.
‘Anonymity is actually less immediately impactive on social behavior than we might assume or expect.’
Whitney Phillips, Mercer University
Amino comprises different communities structured around certain interests, just like Reddit. But that’s where the similarities stop. Reddit has always thrived as a minimalist desktop site; it didn’t even release its own mobile app until 2016. While Amino has a desktop site, you can’t post from it. And it began as a sprawling network of 90 or so different mobile apps. The company only built a centralized portal two years ago through which every community can be accessed. Before then, joining another Amino community meant downloading a separate app. With the centralized structure—and the ability for every user to start a new one—Amino now has over a million communities.
Amino doesn’t make any money, and is fully funded by investors. To generate revenue, the company plans to sell digital goods, like profile upgrades and sticker packs, and to offer a subscription service. Amino declined to say how many active users it has, but said that its various apps have been downloaded tens of millions of times. Users spend an average of 70 minutes a day on the platform, according to the company, or as much as Snapchat and Facebook combined.
Each Amino community has access to several well-built news feeds, chatrooms, quiz and poll capabilities, and voice chat. The most popular Aminos center around nerdy interests, like K-pop, Pokémon, and video games like Doki Doki Literature Club.
But interests like vaporwave music, bisexuality, and feminism all have Amino communities too. Noticeably absent are some of the topics that often feel inescapable on the internet: The tiny Amino communities dedicated to US politics, Trump voters, and Bitcoin are mostly ghost towns. That’s likely at least in part because Amino has so few links to other parts of the internet, like news sites. Many problems that have plagued mainstream platforms, like fake news, have arisen due to outbound links. Conspiracy theories on Facebook aren’t published right to the platform, but to third-party websites which are then linked to. Amino has fostered a culture that often ignores the rest of the internet.
Amino also diverges from Reddit in that it doesn’t carry identity across communities. You can be one person in the Overwatch Amino, and another entirely in Mario Kart. You can change your name, profile picture, and bio to match each specific interest.
“We want people to be able to express themselves, we do want people to create an identity, but we don’t necessarily want them to bring in their full real-life identity. They can craft this identity around this one topic they’re really passionate about,” says Anderson.
Experts say that gives Amino users the chance to express themselves, but it comes with risks.
“Allowing a fluid identity does give people the chance to experiment, and perhaps cultivate, a new and better self,” says John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University who has written extensively about online behavior. “But it also allows people to express those underlying, and perhaps even unconscious, psychological frustrations and needs. It’s just so easy to act out when wearing a costume.”
Last week, Amino announced it would carry anonymity over to video chat, in which users can only communicate as an avatar they design. Anderson compared the feature to Apple’s new Animoji, available only available on the iPhone X. Think of it as Bitmoji for your face, or a form of digital cosplay.
“I wouldn’t say yet that it captures emotion as well as we would probably like, but it gives you a glimmer of the beginning, you can imagine how you could actually capture how one is feeling through this type of technology,” says Anderson.
The new video chat feature serves as an answer to what Anderson calls the “Chatroulette problem,” referring to the viral site that allowed anyone to instantly video chat with strangers—and which became quickly overrun with penises. On Amino, you can’t show anything to the camera aside from your avatar. If move the camera away from your head, your character simply waits for your face to return.
Amino is one of the first social media platforms to bring anonymity to video chat, though people have long role-played in video games and in virtual reality. But its decision to anonymize all aspects of its platform raises questions about what that does to user behavior—especially because Amino is aimed at teens. But researchers say that anonymity alone doesn’t determine how an online community functions.
“Anonymity is actually less immediately impactive on social behavior than we might assume or expect; it’s an intuitive idea, but there’s actually not much research to back those assumptions up,” says Whitney Phillips, a professor at Mercer University and the author of several books about internet culture.
She says that a community’s norms can be more powerful—which is why Amino’s moderators are so crucial. Like Reddit, each community has a number of moderators that help decide what users can post. But if a moderator starts a new Amino with bad intentions, having anonymity can help them get away with it.
‘It’s just so easy to act out when wearing a costume.’
John Suler, Rider University
Unlike Reddit and Tumblr, Amino doesn’t allow pornography. Despite the restrictions, I was able to find content that violated the rules, including groups dedicated to specific sexual fetishes, within minutes. Parents who have posted reviews on Common Sense, a non-profit dedicated to promoting safe technology and media for children, said they also had found inappropriate content on the app.
“With more than a million communities, we know that violations sometimes escape our best efforts, but it is often only a matter of hours—or even minutes—before these violations are fully addressed,” Anderson said in a statement when presented with the offending groups. “We are constantly trying to do better by investing more and more to deliver on our vision of better digital communities.”
What might be harder to moderate than public content are one-on-one chats, which Amino allows. Almost immediately after joining any community, I was inundated with messages from strangers. Many of the messages had little to do with the designated topic; most people wanted to say that they thought my profile picture was cute, or to ask how my day was going. I could chat with dozens of individuals without having to reveal anything about my actual life. It was hard to know how to trust, since I had little to confirm who they were, which sometimes felt creepy. The risks seem far greater for a 14 year old.
Most of the time though, chats on Amino are more mundane. The platform is ultimately banking on what makes the internet alluring for many people: It offers them a chance to be fully immersed in the thing they love the most, while leaving behind the baggage of real life. But it’s hard to be only part of yourself at a time. Even in the most popular communities, the conversations often turn to the normal gripes of everyday existence. In the anime group—which has 1.5 million users—a chat one morning quickly became about how it’s a pain to get ready for school.