What Bang With Friends teaches us about anonymity in tech

By Richard Nieva , written on February 13, 2013

From The News Desk

Okay, we’ve had some time to process the Bang With Friends phenomenon. It’s been about two and a half weeks since the app, which pairs off Facebook friends to, well, bang, has launched, and it has about 600,000 registered users. Adoption numbers like that might cause any other entrepreneur to take a victory lap. Not so for the three Casanovas behind Bang With Friends, who wished to remain anonymous.

But what the escapade has really taught us is: There is no way to stay anonymous in the tech industry. (Unless, maybe, you're Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto.)

The founder (for the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the ringleader as the “founder,” even though there are three of them) tells me he wants to come forward and make Bang With Friends his livelihood. He’s a young Ivy League graduate who went through an accelerator program in the Bay Area for his original project, a traditional dating app. When the side project, which came together after a night of drinking and shooting the shit with friends, took off, he decided to go all in on BWF.

The choice to remain unknown isn’t to create some mystique. It’s not even some embarrassed Alan Smithee move. He says it’s because he wanted time to get ready for the reaction and backlash. Essentially, he wanted to push pause.

He says he will reveal himself eventually. But here’s the truth of the matter: If the founder wants to capitalize on the app’s traction – and there is no reason he shouldn’t – he’ll need to come forward sooner than later. The app is starting to lose its sheen, and people move onto the next thing quickly. The business community won’t play the anonymity game. If he wants to scale, raise capital, and build out a bigger team, he won't be able to do it anonymously.

To be clear, here's how the app works: The service essentially turns your Facebook account into a carnal shopping catalogue. When you choose your suitable partner – and that person also happens to choose you – the app alerts both people of their mutual desire to hook up. Only then are identities revealed; the process is anonymous before that point.

It’s not hard to see why the cofounders, three male 20-somethings, would like to remain anonymous. It also hasn’t gotten very positive press attention. If you’re appalled with the company, apologies for giving it even more press. But it does serve to illustrate the whiplash that is success in the Valley, and the Frankenstein-like nature of projects that take on a life of their own.

I don’t want to make too much of the story. After all it’s a bit of a novelty (though the founders would disagree; they contend they are sexually liberating Gen Y), and little more than a matchmaking app. But at the very least, it serves as a fascinating case study. Here is an app that is successful in the early goings, at least by some metrics, with a founder that’s not ready to deal with it.

The day he comes forward probably won’t be any major news moment, or a great reveal. It might be more akin to someone claiming something from lost and found. We’ll nod in acknowledgement and say, “Oh, cool,” and move on. Still, the day he comes forward, he’ll have a new label attached to his name.

“Are you ready to be known as the “Bang with Friends Guy?” I ask him.

He pauses. “I’m getting there.”

So what’s stopping him? He says he needs to prepare. The first thing is telling friends and family, so they don’t find out in some blog. Two of the other co-founders (which he would not name for me because they too have other projects in the works) have told their parents. One’s mom loved it, and thought it was hilarious, he says. The other’s didn’t take it as well. He left it at that.

The founder hasn’t told his own parents yet, but he is getting ready to. He is unapologetic about the frat-boy tone of the app (he looks sufficiently bro-ish himself), which he proudly says is “a manifestation of our drunken humor.” Having met him only once, I'd describe him as a mild-mannered guy. He seems soft-spoken, one of those quiet talkers. He also calls his service “BWF” instead of “Bang With Friends” – which doesn’t save any time when spoken; it’s got two extra syllables. We also talk about the tone and language of the site (there's a four-letter word in this URL). It may be because we are in a crowded café, but he says “fuck” a bit quietly. Not sheepish, but noticeable.

Whether or not you think the app is revolutionary for the sexual norms of the digital age, there is one tangible issue of anonymity that it could stand to change. When the app launched, Buzzfeed’s Katie Heaney pointed out that while the service was anonymous for users inside the app, all of your Facebook friends could still see that you were using the app. That seems like a legitimate gripe for users who want to protect their privacy. The founder says his team has reached out to Facebook, and they are looking into it.

If Bang With Friends could bring attention to, and reverse, that Facebook policy, it might affect some important change. Oddly enough, these anonymous app makers could do more to protect privacy than the squalling of millions of Facebookers threatening to walk -- which few ever do. The founder is planning on Bang With Friends being around for a long time. But if it folds? "That will be a nice consolation prize," he says.

[Image Credit: Stian Eikeland on Flickr]