“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde
As more users embrace the trend of going incognito, identity-masking social networks are gaining speed by letting people speak their mind unfettered by popularity and judgment.
The three main players in the ‘anonymous app’ arena, Yik Yak, Whisper and Secret (recently shutdown), have seen investors optimistically ladling cash into them. While Yik Yak has raised a total of US$73.5 million to date, Whisper has raised US$61 million in four rounds and while Secret was still up and running — they raised US$35 million in all.
Right on trend, there are startups outside of the US plugging away at anonymous products — the latest addition being Beijing-based social network Tings.
Launched in early May, Tings lets users morph their voice to mask their identity. We had a chat with Co-Founder Ning Fang’s and he shared with e27 his take on the power of anonymity in the social realm.
“Anonymous isn’t just about gossip. But that anonymous also means freedom and equality as it removes people’s identity. Content becomes the only thing that matters and if that content is read in an anonymous environment, you can’t judge if you don’t know who it’s from.”
An app that lets you speak out anonymously
Fang’s decision to go with voice posts was because self-expression via text was too limited, with images ruled out as they cannot be kept anonymous. Voice posts were seen by Fang to be more personal and straightforward, but needed to be morphed in order to keep inhibitions lowered.
“If you use voice, it has your personality and your pitch so it cannot be anonymous. And if people know who you are, you’ll get judged. Going forward, we might allow users to post their original voice, but for now we decided to morph the voice as an interesting way to get people to speak out.”
Fang likened the app’s interface to Instagram as updates are stacked in a message feed, and voice posts are ranked based on popularity, language and location of the user. Tings’ algorithm takes into consideration the types of posts users have listened to and published, then makes recommendations based on relevancy.
A serial entrepreneur in the making
Tings isn’t Fang’s first time at the startup rodeo, as he co-founded one of China’s first fantasy premier football leagues after spending 13 years as an avid sports fan in the UK. 2014, Fang remembers, was a good year for anything within the capital markets. This was thanks to China enthusiastically promoting its ‘Internet Plus’ plan, a scheme to boost the economy by integrating the web with traditional industries.
While investors initially questioned the popularity of the football industry in China, they came around during this time and Fang and his co-founders exited their company for around US$2 million.
“They wanted to invest for a 60 per cent share, so we just gave them a discounted price for the whole company. My parents paid for me to go to the UK, so I just paid back my parents [with the payout]. I paid back my ‘seed investors.'” As his father wasn’t fond of him pivoting away from his economics degree earned at the University of Bath and a seven-year consulting career, he felt the exit helped diffuse some of that tension.
Operating as an anonymous social network in China
Despite Fang’s vision for Tings to be a Reddit-like platform (with a more positive spin) where users can post their most pressing questions, the reality is anonymous social networks have a tendency to spin out of control by ways of cyber-bullying. More importantly, a China-based anonymous social network has the potential for politically-minded and outspoken users to take advantage of a masked online identity.
When probed about the possibility of users taking Tings to negative extremes, Fang said that all content is moderated and that “anything about free speech is seen as controversial.” Plus, Tings is too small of an outfit to be noticed and it has been operating amongst a number of anonymous apps that are thriving without government intervention in China.
Fang is optimistic about his app’s future, but has a workaround in mind — one that he believes was used by LinkedIn, Evernote, and popular anonymous apps Whisper and Secret.
“The challenge is we might have to build two separate apps, but the cost is really high so we aren’t doing it for now. Our servers aren’t based in China, actually we’re using AWS. We planned this on purpose — if we do get in trouble and our servers are based in China, we’d have to shut down the servers and our Chinese users wouldn’t be able to use Tings. So we set up in the US so if we ever get shut down in China, the rest of the world can still use Tings.”
Traction picking up just three months in
Having picked up an undisclosed angel round from K2VC in the past which put the the-month-old startup at a US$10 million valuation, Tings is now in talks with a a number of Chinese, Hong Kong and American VCs for their Series A. Their second round of funding, according to Fang, should be within US$3-$5 million and they’re also keen on scooping the interest of Southeast Asian investors and media groups that can help with marketing.
Tings currently has 50,000 registered users at 17 per cent daily active app usage and is available free for iOS. Outside if its Chinese breeding grounds, Fang notes that it’s actually gaining popularity in Southeast Asia — mainly in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Most odd is their traction in Russia, which has catalysed their plans to localise the app in Russian as their next step.
First come the users, then we monetise
As for monetising the app, Fang said they’ll be going a similar route as other social software products. “As we are a social network, we’ll be looking at advertising opportunities based on Tings’ main features such as voice morphing,” and he said like LINE and their in-app sticker purchases, Tings can put voice effects for cartoon characters and celebrities up for sale.
It’s still early days for the young startup, and the Tings team is still fine-tuning the product based on what the user wants. So far, the app is mostly used for singing. Fang said that two of Tings’ most active users is an amateur singer from Indonesia and a quasi-professional from the US who uses the app as a platform to promote his unreleased songs. Based on this, Fang sees the potential for voice promotion for movies or musicians other ways to monetise the app.
Whether Tings will evolve into a promotions platform for artists or become the voice-enabled version of Quora or Reddit, only time will tell. But like all other anonymous apps, Tings has a shot at the big leagues because we as users are only going to relish the power of anonymity more and more. And frankly, we like the sounds of our own voices a little too much.