You can learn a lot from drag queens. How to put lots of foundation on without it looking like a Bisquick incident. How to brick lay your lashes. And that, generally speaking, less is not more: more is more.
But perhaps the most important lesson a drag queen ever taught me came from my dear, very close friend because we once spoke on the phone for 15 minutes RuPaul — long regarded as an oracle of truthy koans that echo through the gay ages, like this one: “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
Man, that is some slick psychological Pam I wished I could have sprayed on the ol’ brain-pan back in the day. Just imagine what life as a gay teen in the ’90s could have been like, armed with the conceit that it’s not indifference nor callousness that should keep you from suffering the opinions of your critics, tormentors, and friends, it’s your own moral obligation to MYOB.
It’s valuable advice that arrived about two decades too late to be of actual use to me (rather than confirmation of an attitude I’ve built up in less articulate terms over the years), but seem right on time for about 250 million other people that spring to mind.
That’s the estimated user base for Sarahah, a newish app from Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq (the name loosely translates from Arabic to “honesty”), which allows users to anonymously submit “honest feedback” to one another through a simple text form. Users share a link to their Sarahah pages, leading friends to a form where realness is typed and submitted, then read and digested, and from there, the real Sarahah experience begins.
The first few media mentions of Sarahah I spotted came right at the top of the month, and treated the app like an invasive social-media kudzu: “Say hi to Sarahah, the anonymous messaging app ruining Snapchat for teens,” read a headline on Mashable.
And while Sarahah had been nudgingusers to share links to the app on Snapchat since mid-July, the overwhelming swell in the use of the app (within a month, Sarahah reached No. 1 in 30 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, and clocked more than 1 billion page views) has more to do with people’s natural inclination to share criticism of themselves rather than consider it.
As eagerly as users embedded their Sarahah URLs into their photos on Snapchat, they started posting and sharing the screenshots of each anonymous critique they’d receive. Within a week of the trend flaring up, Snapchat stories and posts were a sea of sea green, sans serif, and self-aggrandizement by way of self-flagellation, courtesy of Sarahah.
While Sarahah appears to have caught on first with teens, it was only a few days before the sensation rose like indigestion in the feeds of my own decidedly middle-age friend base — given as we are to self-inflicted heartburn. Some reacted in horror to this influx of unsolicited personal processing clogging up their timelines. After all, sharing a screenshot of an anonymous demand that you, say, “get over yourself” in order to pan for comments to the contrary could (possibly) (maybe) (potentially) be read as evidence to the affirmative. It’s possible.
Others defended the stated purpose of the app (to “help you self-develop by receiving constructive anonymous feedback”) and defended its validity as a perfectly reasonable way to get honest opinions from friends on your friends list who might not otherwise feel comfortable sharing. Because you’re such good friends. Implied scare quotes everywhere!
Several folks in my feed attempted comparisons between the app and more familiar real-world exercises in anonymous feedback, like a performance evaluation at work or an “online suggestion box” for your personal life.
The difference is that my boss never just straight-up calls me a fat loser, and when I “suggest” Wendy’s bring back their salad bar, the manager doesn’t then emerge from the kitchen, waving my card over his head and shouting “Hey, idiot who wants salad! You don’t know my life! Go to hell!”
As exclusively receptive as these Sarahah masses claim to be toward the “constructive feedback” part of the experience — we’ve been here before, and it’s not about filing your TPS reports more swiftly.
Anonymous messaging and social-media apps like Secret and YikYak folded under the weight of their own bullies, serving as little more than playgrounds for online abuse and harassment. That their user bases were constricted to one’s own social networks only seemed to sharpen the knives.
And while the anonymous workplace gossip app Blind is gaining steam in Silicon Valley, it also fences its user base within employee pools — that is, you’re unlikely to learn how ugly you are, or that Susan was cheating on you the whole time.
But Sarahah adds another mirror to this hall. While secret channels within social circles can make for a few days of high-quality inside jokes (and certainly, much of what is proliferating across Facebook from Sarahah amounts to turning the app into a comedic device — an elaborate way to lovingly remind your bestie what a mess he is), they can also further fracture the already brittle institution of friendship.
It bothers me to watch friends open themselves up to anonymous anything from one another, like some slumber party game with blindfolds and stairwells. It bothers me more that “friends” are what we call people who sucker-punch each other or watch it happen from the other side of the street. It bothers me most to witness how protective people are with kindness — smuggling compliments to one another through back channels like fugitive sentiments. The shame of actual liking.
But like anything bothersome on Facebook, it’ll eventually slide down and off my timeline for good (or I’ll unfollow Sarahah addicts). In the meantime I’ll turn to another life tip I picked up from drag: Dorian Gray’s explanation of “shade” (from Jennie Livingston’s now canonical documentary “Paris is Burning”): “I don’t tell you you’re ugly,” Gray said, explaining the term to Livingston. “I don’t have to tell you, because you know.”
Gray’s definition of shade is grounded in the fine art of sharing without sharing, spreading honesty through grace, dispensing commentary through silence. Hers was an almost poetic understanding of the potent force of the unsaid. It also reinforces some other enduring words of wisdom: If you have nothing nice to say, save it for brunch like a normal person.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.