I’ve been reading about Memo – “the anonymous app that could revolutionize the workplace” launched at the tail end of 2014 and it’s already creating a bit of a stir in some business and technology editorials.
“Memo is an app that wants to elevate water-cooler talk so that the good ideas and criticism of company practices are accessible to everyone in the company. It is an anonymous message board within specific workplaces. The app verifies that you work at a certain company through your LinkedIn page or email address — and then erases that information, leaving you free to criticize (or praise) your company’s 2015 strategy as much as you like in an online space to which other employees have access.” [source: New York Times; Jan 17, 2015]
One of the problems, and I can see several, is illustrated by how the app is represented in recent coverage:
App lets workers vent anonymously – WSJ
A new messaging app [that] wants to modernize office gossip – qz.com
App that helps you vent anger at work – BGR India (among others)
Workplace gossip app is already controversial – BostInno
In the BostInno article, the first paragraph describes it as “an anonymous messaging app for the workplace that many are using to talk trash about their employers”. Only in the second paragraph do you some insight into the founder – Ryan Janssen’s – more high-minded sense of purpose for the app: “the power to make your company better by giving your fellow employees a voice.”
The real debate centres on the role of anonymity.
A precursor of Memo – Whisper – launched in 2012 to let users send public messages anonymously, was outed by The Guardian in October 2014 for using geolocation services to track users’ locations, including some who had specifically asked not to be followed. Anonymity was the platform for Whisper according to the company’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Heyward: “Whisper isn’t actually about concealing identity. It’s about a complete absence of identity… so you’re not as guarded.” He called Whisper the “safest place on internet” and portrays the app as a secure place in which users should feel free to express their innermost feelings and confessions.
David Byttow – co-founder of Secret, another precursor of Memo – believes the nature and meaning of anonymity is changing. “Secret isn’t for sharing secrets. It’s for sharing secretly.” He believes it’s a place for sharing information strategically among friends, without the shackles of being completely identified.
Byttow believes that people dilute their opinions/feedback in a deliberate effort not to rock the boat so that apps that promise anonymity and enable users to post the “raw truth” of what they’re thinking and feeling will continue to grow. Byttow also believes that people will find new ways to judge the value of anonymous posts: “Typically, people decide whether to trust posts based on what they know about the identity of the speaker. But people can trust information without knowing a poster’s identity, if they understand the wider context, such as whether poster was physically nearby or whether a post came from someone in a user’s network of contacts. Anonymity without context is not interesting.” [Source WSJ blog: Anonymous messaging App Secret distances itself from Whisper Nov 2014]
“Employees all know exactly what’s going on, but for some reason it’s being kept from management,” is Janssen’s view. Launching an app for anonymous sharing direct to employees and bypassing any employer endorsement was based on his belief that “people actually want to like their company. They just don’t like feeling powerless.” However, it seems that early adopters of Memo are falling some way short of enabling a more transparent culture that will engender a greater sense of shared purpose and improved productivity and are instead creating a beast that is going to be hard to drag out of its downward spiral of “trash talk”, venting and gossip.
I’m not convinced that an anonymous feedback forum will ever add real business value if employers aren’t prepared to endorse it. This might appear to be a contradiction in terms but such an endorsement would indicate that the work culture is sufficiently trusting and supportive to enable a degree of anti-establishment views and feedback that challenges status quo rather than just malicious venting or whingey gossip.