Meet Rumr: The anonymous messaging app teens will love until it makes them cry

By Michael Carney , written on November 20, 2013

From The News Desk

Brace yourselves: There’s a new mobile messaging app about to hit the market that parents, educators, and even law enforcement will hate. The app is called Rumr, and the premise is anonymous messaging, but in a way that’s far more nefarious than anything else out there today.

If we collectively worried that MySpace fostered pedophiles, Facebook facilitated bullying, Snapchat’s ephemerality encouraged sexting, and Whisper causes young girls to feel insecure and needy...well, Rumr is our worst nightmare. And that might be exactly why it takes off with teens.

Lest you hope that Rumr will go away before it ever takes off, PandoDaily has heard that stealthy Los Angeles-based company just closed an $800,000 seed round from several prominent investors, including, Khosla Ventures (Ben Ling), Google Ventures (MG Siegler), Greycroft Partners (Paul Bricault), and angel investor Paige Craig. We’re told that the money was officially wired yesterday.

The rub with Rumr is that the anonymity goes only one way. The sender who initiates the conversation knows the identity of the recipient or recipients, but the recipients are blind. There are plenty of fun and harmless ways this could be used, such as by secret admirers and to facilitate harmless school yard gossip. But it could just as easily – rather it will – be used for harassment, bullying, blackmail, and other horrible behaviors.

Like on WhatsApp and other popular messaging platforms, users can send messages to those in their address book who also have the app installed or can look up users who have set themselves to public. Messages can be sent to individuals or to groups. To keep these anonymous conversations straight – or some semblance of straight – each participant is assigned a different color. Thus, participants may refer to one another within the conversation by their color representation.

Now, of course, things could change before launch, but the product is already in a state of private alpha and being used by people close to the company. Sources tell me that the company’s iOS app is essentially finished and the Android app will soon follow. The company apparently plans to launch to the public on both platforms, simultaneously, in the coming weeks.

Rumr was founded by James Jerlecki and Collin Vance, both of whom most recently worked for LA-based mobile messaging and telephony startup textPlus (fka GOGGI). Both left textPlus in September, according to their LinkedIn profiles, but it appears that Rumr has been in the works for much longer. Jerlecki and Vance are still building out their team, something that this funding round should help with. Thus far, they’ve been forced to outsource some of the development to friends within the local startup community, our sources say, but several of these individuals are expected to join full-time in the future.

The company’s relationship to textPlus, a stodgy-by-comparison, growth-stage messaging company, only increases its parallels with Whisper, which itself was incubated within TigerText, an enterprise-focused secure messaging platform. The fact both are in LA, alongside Snapchat, Burner, and others, invites a whole discussion about why LA seems to be leading the market for anonymous, ephemeral, and privacy-first social platforms.

So back to anonymous messaging. The closest thing to Rumr is the uber-popular Whisper. But even Whisper is a one-to-mass broadcasting platform where people share their deepest and darkest secrets, seek support and advice, and in most cases find positivity – from strangers. Rumr appears more like a digital sniper’s rifle, that in the wrong hands could be wielded to cause acute pain and suffering.

Think about the scenario of an ugly breakup where one partner has nude photos of their ex. If that person chose to share this embarrassing content through Rumr, there’d be no way to pin it back to them. The same would be true of threats made by a bully – something that has become increasingly problematic in the age of digital native teens and which has led to a number of suicides and a public outcry.

In either of these scenarios, it’s conceivable that Rumr could be the target of police investigations and court subpoenas to unmask the identity of bad actors on the platform. Again, since the company hasn’t launched yet, we can’t even speculate as to its policies or how it will react. The fact we must engage in these speculations, however, should be a red flag.

People talk about why anonymity is so important online, invoking authoritarian regimes and freedom of speech. But the reality for most of the Western world is that anonymity is more of a crutch for bad behavior on the Web than anything else. We’ve seen as much in the hatred that fills comment sections of blogs and forums and then in the profound impact that Facebook Connect and other identity mechanism have had in curbing bad behavior. We’ve seen enough of the Web to know that when people can be anonymous, hate follows. Maybe it’s not all hate, but there’s never been a case where hate or bullying didn’t follow.

Fortunately, sometimes the market gets things right and these platforms don’t take off. One recent example of this was Unvarnished, which launched in 2010 to allow professionals to leave one another anonymous feedback. At the time, TechCrunch called it “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Defamation.” The company eventually changed its name to Honestly, but it's long since been shuttered and its site now redirects to TalentBin. College gossip site JuicyCampus met a similar fate. The idea that the teen market will be self-policing seems less likely. It took a class action lawsuit by several dozen women to shut down revenge porn site

All of the above notwithstanding, Rumr has the potential to become an enormous hit among messaging-obsessed teens. As we’ve seen with SnapChat’s ephemeral messaging service, and Whisper for that matter, teens and young adults are desperate to regain some semblance of control over their online identity and to communicate outside of the watchful eyes of their parents. Rumr will feed both of these needs, while satisfying the innate human desire to do things that are forbidden or dangerous.

But is popularity all these investors should care about? There is (or at least there should be) a certain social responsibility associated with releasing a consumer facing product, especially one targeting teens. For Rumr to avoid the wrath of parents, educators, child psychologists, law enforcement, and other rightfully interested parties, the company will have to be proactive in the way they address bullies and other malicious users.

Or if Rumr’s investors don’t care about a broader responsibility, how about monetization? One of the biggest reasons MySpace struggled to turn its 300 million user juggernaut into revenue was because of all the questionable content that covered the site. All it takes is one scandal, one attorney general targeting Rumr, and advertisers will be spooked.

Jerlecki graduated from Ball State University in 2010 and Vance from the University of Florida in 2011, placing them directly within the target demographic for Rumr. The founders presumably know the social devastation that Rumr could cause, but also the potential virality of the product.

It looks like we’re just weeks away from learning which social engine the company will emphasize: love, or hate. Should they choose the latter, things could get ugly in a hurry. And with brand name investors funding the company to chase the teen messaging boom, it’ll be more than just the founders who look bad.

Rumr and its investors did not return requests for comment prior to publishing. We will update this article with more information as it becomes available.

[Image via Thinkstock]