Yousuf Bakshi, a junior at Harvard, recalled getting in line at El Jefe’s Taqueria at 2 a.m. in Cambridge, Mass., to grab a late-night snack after a recent night out. Mr. Bakshi, 20, couldn’t help noticing that nearly everyone ahead of him in line was on their phones, all scrolling through the same app: Sidechat.
“It’s an easy place to see all the jokes and gossip, and it really helps foster a lot of talk of the town,” Mr. Bakshi said, comparing the app to Lady Whistledown’s gossip column in the Netflix series “Bridgerton.”
In recent months, Sidechat, a buzzy new app, where users log in with university-affiliated email addresses and write anonymous posts that are visible only within their school community, has racked up downloads at universities including Harvard, Cornell, Tufts and Columbia. Campus newspapers have documented the app’s fast-paced growth. In March, The Cornell Daily Sun wrote that “the app has quickly become a hallmark of Cornell social life.” In April, The Harvard Crimson reported that Sidechat “is taking campus by storm.”
The premise isn’t new but is irresistible for many students: an opportunity to chat about what’s happening on campus with peers, without having their names attached to what they say. Posts go live without any prior approval and are only removed later if a message is deemed to be in violation of platform guidelines. While some students find the secrecy to be harmless fun, others seem to be emboldened by the anonymity and, as is common online, post caustic and hurtful comments. Now, some students, many already jaded by past experiences with similar platforms, say they are souring on Sidechat, but they are still signing on.
“It is fun to just post memes and relatable things without having your identity revealed,” Mr. Bakshi said.
The founders of Sidechat have remained anonymous. A representative for the company, who did not disclose their name, said the founders would not comment for this article. The representative also declined to answer questions sent by email, including how many schools it is currently operating at. Nearly a dozen student ambassadors contacted for this article declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests for comment.
Gossip, Inside Jokes and Toxicity
For years, students have flocked to anonymous confessions pages on Facebook and Instagram (Harvard Confessions or Tufts Secrets, for example) where they can submit posts that are then approved and posted by a moderator.
Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses
Formspring became popular in the early 2010s for allowing users to post questions and answers without having to identify themselves. It was quickly filled with cyberbullies who would post threats and hurtful comments aimed at other teenage users. The site shut down in 2013, when its chief executive announced that the maintenance costs had become untenable.
“Anonymous apps are notorious for rapidly rising and falling in popularity,” said Ysabel Gerrard, a social media researcher at the University of Sheffield. “They attract a user base far larger and faster than their founders anticipate, leaving staff unprepared for the necessary scale of content moderation.”
But the speed of growth of these platforms, and the controversies around them, can be part of the appeal, she added. “It’s also often the case that teens download new apps in the hopes they’ll be safer than those preceding them,” she said.
Rabiya Ismail, 22, who was a student at Tufts, said she had downloaded Sidechat after seeing another student promoting the app on her class Facebook group. “It started off fun,” she said. “People were just going on to make jokes about campus and post memes.”
But just a few weeks later, after seeing that the app had become flooded with hateful posts, Ms. Ismail deleted it. “We’ve had a lot of xenophobic and racist comments,” she said. “If a low-income student makes a post complaining about wealth on campus, there will always be a comment saying, ‘Well, I’m sorry you’re poor.’”
After Tufts announced last month that the university would require students to wear masks through the end of the final exam season, the app was inundated with posts that were scornful of students with health issues.
“There was a post that said, ‘I hope immunocompromised people get Covid now,’ and it got tons of up-votes before it was deleted,” Ms. Ismail said.
She eventually re-downloaded Sidechat because she didn’t want to miss out on the positive aspects of campus life it promoted. “Recently, Elizabeth Warren was randomly on our campus, and someone posted that she’s at the campus center, which got people talking,” Ms. Ismail said.
Nicholas Gray, 20, a freshman at Cornell, said his biggest complaint about the app was the way it’s moderated. Because the moderators can be students, in his experience, a lot of the posts are “moderated in a superficial manner,” he said.
Harvard, Columbia and Tufts did not respond to requests for comment, and representatives from Brown University and Cornell said the schools had no affiliation with Sidechat.
“This is a third-party app with no involvement from the university,” Brian Clark, a spokesperson for Brown University said. “The dynamics of online communities are of course complex, particularly where anonymity is part of the equation.”
Cookies for Downloads
Students said that it felt as if the app had become popular overnight. Kristin Merrilees, 20, a sophomore at Barnard College in Manhattan, which has a partnership with Columbia, said that one day, out of nowhere, she saw that several peers had posted about it on their Instagram stories. She noticed people setting up tables to promote the app on the quad, and an email was sent out to her entire sorority, saying that the group could earn $3 from Sidechat for every member that downloaded it.
The email, which was reviewed by The New York Times, described the app to would-be promoters as “basically like a Columbia-only Yik Yak.”
The suggestion of a school-specific experience appears to be central to Sidechat’s marketing pitch: Student ambassadors are enlisted to give the app campus credibility; separate Instagram accounts market the app with inside jokes unique to each university; even the app interface differs from user to user, reflecting the school colors of the student who is accessing it.
TyKerius Monford, a freshman at Brown, worked as an ambassador for Sidechat. Mr. Monford, 19, said he learned of the opportunity when a president of a club he was a member of mentioned that she was working with Sidechat and that they were looking for student contractors to help get it off the ground.
“Brown has a pretty big start-up culture, and I wanted to be involved in that way,” he said. Mr. Monford helped spread the word about the app on social media, and he made several posts on Sidechat to populate the feed, he said.
Amina Salahou, 19, a freshman at Harvard, said she received $20 for posting about Sidechat on her Instagram. She also spent a day promoting the app on campus, earning her $20 per hour. In just one day, she and the other students doing on-the-ground promotion got 700 people to download Sidechat by offering them cookies, Ms. Salahou added.
She said that she had heard about the opportunity through a friend who was involved with the release and that she now enjoys using the app as a way to keep up with what her peers are talking about.
“My friends and I don’t share memes in our group chat anymore,” she said. “We all just go to Sidechat.”