Unseen, an Anonymous Photo App, Wants to Help Users Meet in Real Life

Unseen wants to moderate content, not censor. Now it also wants to let anonymous users connect with each other.

Unseen, a new anonymous photo sharing app, wants to move beyond the likes of Snapchat by doing something that feels inherently antithetical to its premise: let users connect with each other in real life, while still staying anonymous to everyone else. 

Created by Michael Schramm and Munjal Budhabhatti, who formerly built collaboration tools for businesses and consumers, Unseen came about after experiments with crowd-sourcing answers and group messaging apps. The two felt that anonymous photo sharing could serve as an antidote to, as Schramm calls it, the "inherently inauthentic, heavily censored, super-glossy personas you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter" and so on.

The app is aimed at college students at the moment; similar to the early days of Facebook, you sign up to Unseen with your own university. Users can browse the latest and most popular images, but can only post photos, make comments, or up or down vote images within the university community to which they belong. However, Unseen allows its users to view all other schools' images, as well as invite friends and tweak their profiles. 

What distinguishes Unseen from other anonymous messaging apps, according to Schramm, is that while most focus solely on the act of sharing anonymously, Unseen uses anonymity as a way to introduce a user's "real self" without fear of repercussions or judgment (apart from the moderator's will).

The University of Alabama Unseen feed is a steady stream of sex and weightlifting references. Oh, and a fair bit of McDonald's. Image: Derek Mead

"To be the best way to share and connect with people without fear of repercussions or rejection/anxiety of putting yourself out there," he said.

The app promises this, Schramm said, by collecting as little user data as possible. The Austin-based startup says the app doesn't collect identifiable information about users.

"The best way to protect a user's identity is to not collect any identifiable information (i.e. name, email, Facebook, phone number, etc.) in the first place," Schramm said, who noted that IP address and geolocation data is encrypted with Transport Layer Security (TLS), and stored on Google's servers. "Complete anonymity is a requirement in every aspect of product development."

The natural concern of an anonymous, open platform is it becoming flooded with offensive material. Unseen has a team of moderators that reviews user- and software-flagged content to determine if any of it requires deletion. According to Schramm, the moderators monitor 100 percent of the app's user-generated content.

"There are a number of people who join the app with a single objective to destroy the community with hateful/horrific content that no person should ever see or be exposed to," Schramm said in an email. "Our software and moderators quickly identify these users and content and remove them indefinitely from the app. Additionally, we control for racist, homophobic, and obscene sexual content that occurs naturally in any community."

Asked how Unseen balances user privacy with "automatic and outsourced moderation" of photographic content, Schramm emphasized that the moderation team does not have access to "any information or content that is not already made public to a normal user."

"We want to censor as little as possible and only remove the content that distracts from Unseen being a safe place to express one's opinions, struggles, and beliefs," Schramm said.

But, as Sarah Perez pointed out in a recent TechCrunch piece on Unseen, the moderators currently aren't doing such a great job policing content. Indeed, Unseen photo sharing can be a bit of a free-for-all at the moment.

After downloading the app, and perusing user images, it's clear that users are posting all manner of sexually suggestive captioned (and non-captioned) images, which trigger a variety of suggestive or outright sexually explicit comments in return. Some comments even veer towards what would be sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Would Schramm like to see this sort of photograph material disappear from Unseen? He said Unseen's role is not to determine what is right or wrong; and they do not have the desire to censor users from expressing themselves in ways that don't threaten the community that the startup is building.

iOS Unseen comments. Image: Unseen

Schramm also said that while it's Unseen's job to protect users from malicious activity, it certainly isn't their role to create a "fictitious view of the world," a charge he levels at social media. An interesting criticism given the murky, fictitious, and even mysterious worlds fashioned by individuals masquerading under the mask of anonymity.

Schramm, however, admits the challenge in moderating content. Ten different users might offer ten different responses to moderation policy. But, he claimed that the response to Unseen's moderation has been "overwhelmingly positive." If the app's user base grows exponentially, the responses might not remain so positive. 

Perhaps surprisingly given Unseen being currently filled with sexual content, Schramm said that the next step for Unseen is to build a way for users to go from complete anonymity to complete transparency with others. Users would do this by controlling the level of anonymity privately and securely. One way that Unseen hopes to do this is by releasing a private self-destructing messaging and image sharing feature within the next seven to ten days.

Unseen is already seeing evidence that this is what users want. Yesterday, an Unseen user posted a message asking other users if they had met people using the app. As Schramm said, people said they'd met new friends on Unseen, while one user claimed to be dating someone they meet on the app. 

Though some users might want to connect for hook-ups or simply to make friends, hopefully this happens in as safe a way as possible. The problem with posting risqué photos is that one never knows who is on the other end; but, that's an online dating risk in general. 

"If Unseen is to become a place where you can share ideas, beliefs, and moments and connect with others, we'll need to focus on creating ways for users to go from complete anonymity to being able to connect in the real world," Schramm said. For now those ideas, beliefs, and moments seem to be limited to bodies and what can be done with them, but Unseen hopes that's just the jumping-off point.