Burnbook is one of many new apps that allows people to anonymously post comments or pictures. I blogged about similar apps, Secrets and Whispers, last year. The difference with Burnbook is that it is restricted geographically to a local area determined by your GPS location.
What I find strange about Burnbook (and also Secrets, Whispers, and Yik-yak) is that all these apps are trying to build networks and communities with anonymous interactions. What’s the point? While researching Burnbook, I was mystified to discover that CEO/founder, Jonathan Lucas, developed the app in part because his sister had been bullied in school and he didn’t want people to feel the way she had. “I wanted to create a place where people could feel safe being anonymous, but not having to worry about being harassed by others,” Lucas said.
After reading a couple articles about cyberbullying and threats happening on Burnbook, I went straight to the source. I watched Mean Girls, a 2004 movie showing the inner workings of a popular high school girls’ clique, nicknamed “The Plastics.” They keep a Burn Book, a handmade scrapbook with pictures of people they don’t like with a mean caption. It’s 2004 so the Burn Book is paper.
The climax happens when one of The Plastics, feeling shunned by the others, decides to expose the Burn Book by giving it to the principal and by photocopying the pages and littering them around school grounds where others will find them. What results is something close to mass hysteria and lots of hurt feelings.
If Lucas really wants a place where people could feel safe by being anonymous, why would he name the app after something that is associated, at least in the movie, with bullying, cruelty, and being mean?
No doubt everybody will be looking for somebody to blame about all the cyberbullying and threats that have been posted through Burnbook. Who is ultimately responsible for people using these apps in what might be considered inappropriate ways? Parents of children? Creators of apps? The kids themselves? The app is for 17+, but is obviously used by children under 17.
Additionally, some forums just don’t translate well into the digital realm. The damage caused in the movie by spreading around photocopies of the Burn Book was likely short lived and easy to remove all traces. It’s not so easy to get rid of things, even anonymously posted comments, when they’re done digitally.