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Oversharenting Victims Rebel: The Quest for Online Anonymity

7 minute read

Correction appended Jan. 17

Even if Millennials’ younger siblings in Generation Z were all mini-Anthony Weiners, we’d never have a clue how many naughty selfies they’re sending after SAT class. That’s because these web-bred munchkins are actually shaping up to be way more cautious online than Millennials.

New research shows that Generation Z favors anonymous or self-destructing social media over more permanent and identifiable identities on Facebook or Twitter, and they’re voting with their feet; some studies estimate that over 11 million young people have left Facebook since 2011. So before we know it, our ubiquitous digital footprints may look like more like dinosaur tracks.

And it’s not just about Snapchat, the blockbuster app that allows us to send an image and have it disappear seconds after the recipient views it. A whole slew of new apps and platforms, fueled by their popularity among teens, are capitalizing on the impulse to share content without the curse of permanence. Blink lets users share self-destructing texts and pictures with groups, Skim erases texts as you read them, and BurnNote messages can only be viewed a few words at a time. And some apps, like Whisper, go even further by guaranteeing that content can never be traced back to the user, because the user is completely anonymous.

Generation Z isn’t buying the notion that our online profiles are almost historical records of our online identities that must be fueled by a constant stream of comments. The Cassandra Report, released by the Intelligence Group, a consumer insight and research company, found that 55% of post-millennial respondents said they don’t like things that last forever online, and another 55% said they’d rather be anonymous than vocal. And 76% said they thought other people shared too much.

Jamie Gutfreund, Chief Strategy Officer of the Intelligence Group, said that teens are increasingly aware of the hazards of over-posting partly because their parents often shared pictures and updates on their childhoods without their consent. “When kids are born in the last 10 years, they have no control over the amount of information that’s available about them online,” she said. “The younger they are, the more aware they are of the value of their information.” And that self-consciousness seems to be growing as the kids get older — the 2013 Cassandra report found that 18% of teens say they share a lot about themselves online, down from 24% in the 2012 report.

MORE: Are You Guilty of “Oversharenting?”

But opting out of the overshare culture isn’t just about self-preservation, it’s also about emotional sanity. Implicit bragging on Instagram and Facebook causes FOMO, or fear-of-missing-out on whatever party, vacation, or Coachella road trip one’s friends appear to be enjoying. Dr. Dan Ariely, who teaches psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, says that FOMO is caused by fixating on what could have been. “Imagine whether you’d be more upset if you missed your flight by two minutes or two hours,” he said. “People say two minutes. Why? Because it could have been you who made the flight. Instead you’re stuck at O’Hare.”

Whisper founder Michael Heyward says that older social networks like Facebook and Instagram inadvertently reinforce the idea that someone, somewhere, is having more fun than you. “Facebook is a human highlight reel — people at parties, with friends, on vacation, looking awesome all the time,” he said. “This shiny, manicured view of the world was leaving my peer group with a distorted view of themselves and the world around them, asking “Why is everyone else’s life so fantastic?”

But Gutfreund says that Generation Z-ers are consciously trying to fight FOMO with a zen-like “JOMO,” or “joy-of-moving-on.” Young people are recognizing that “you can’t know everything, you can’t be everywhere, you can’t watch every TEDtalk,” and they’re getting over it. It’s part of a move away from a social network based on competition and performance, and towards one based on genuine shared experiences.

That’s what Heyward says Whisper is trying to do. The two-year old app is sometimes mislabeled a secret-sharing app, because all the users are totally anonymous and many people use it for public confession. But it’s really more like the anti-Facebook, trying to divorce the identity of its users from the content they post.

It’s like a social-networking version of PostSecret, the community-art project made of secrets scrawled on postcards, except that users can reply to each others’ secrets on Whisper, and reveal their identities if they want. The app is growing fast, with over 3 billion unique viewers a month and $24 million in funding over the course of 2013 alone. And it’s especially popular with young people; over half its users are under 24.

People tend to think of Whisper as an app for confessions, but it’s increasingly become just a way to post tweet-like observations without involving your real-life identity. Some Whispers are juicy secrets:

Others are cries for help:

Some are totally boring:

And some are truly weird:

True, anonymity is nothing new in the online teen scene– just ask all the kids who have been bullied on Ask.fm, the site that lets users post questions and solicit anonymous answers. And while most of the posts seem like something you’d read on the wall of a locker room (lots of people confess that they’re gay or that they’ve cheated on their boyfriend, or both) some people see the potential for Whisper to grow into something more than angsty slumber party fodder.

One of those people is Neetzan Zimmerman. Known in the media world as something of a traffic savant with an uncanny sense of what will generate human interest and rack up the clicks, the Gawker blogger attracted more unique visitors to the site than all his colleagues combined. So when he left Gawker to join Whisper earlier this month, it was considered a huge vote of confidence for the startup. Zimmerman thinks Whisper is onto something. “People are going to want to read this content, it’s fascinating content, and it’s addictive,” he said. “It’s like popcorn, people keep coming back to it.”

Let’s go back to it:

“It meets the demand for privacy and also the demand for a place to be yourself. And Whisper, by the fact that you’re completely anonymous, is both of those,” he said. “It promotes being yourself. Because it asks you to unload, to unvent. To put your real self on Whisper.”

And by “real self” this generation means an online self that doesn’t have a real name attached to it. Dr. Ariely says that the anonymity of an app like Whisper helps dilute the anxiety stirred up by other social apps, because users don’t compare themselves to one another in the same way. “For the fear of missing out, we need to think that we could have made it,” he said. “And when something is anonymous and not connected to us, we can’t imagine it could have been us because we don’t have the details.”

The trend towards anonymity and self-destructing texts will probably continue, because kids are never wrong in predicting the future (one second, let me just feed my Tamagachi). So I guess Millennial oldsters like me will one day gather together in a nursing home, pointing at our Instagrams with wrinkly fingers, scrolling through tweets in extra large font and shouting to each other, “who was Justine Sacco, again?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story, the founder of Whisper was misidentified.

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com