The App Store’s most popular free app isn’t what you think it is.
It’s called Sarahah, and in the past week, it’s surged to the top of the App Store in regions like Australia, Ireland, the U.S, and the UK.
Created by Saudi Arabian developer Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, the app is essentially a social network that lets you send and receive anonymous messages.
Sarahah was built on the premise that people are more willing to be honest when their messages are anonymized, and it’s become particularly popular in Arab-speaking regions and also among English-speaking teenagers.
Development for the social network started back in November 2016, when it was still a simple website and didn’t have an app. Its creator, who has a degree in computer science, wanted to get into app development when he came up with the idea.
His original vision for Sarahah, which means “frankness” or “honesty” in Arabic, was to create a tool that would help employees provide unfiltered feedback to their employers.
“There’s an issue in the workplace people need to communicate frankly to their bosses,” said Tawfiq, who works full-time as a business systems analyst at an oil company in Saudi Arabia.
My ultimate goal was 1,000 messages
Tawfiq quickly realized that the service could be useful outside of a corporate settings. Friends might want to anonymously provide constructive feedback to each other as well.
So in the fall of 2016, he launched the website and began sharing it within his group of friends. “There was something special about it,” he said. “My ultimate goal was 1,000 [shared] messages.”
But by the end of the year, he only reached a couple of hundred messages, and decided to try a new approach. Inspired by the so-called “connectors” in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (essentially, people who know everyone), Tawfiq decided to share the app with a friend who he considered to be an major influencer.
According to Tawfiq, the service grew from about 70 users to more than a thousand in the span of just a few days after he shared the app with his influencer friend. From there, it quickly “spread like a virus,” throughout other Arab countries, he told Mashable. Lebanon picked it up, then Tunisia. Then everything changed when Sarahah finally reached Egypt in early 2017.
It quickly “spread like a virus” throughout other Arab countries
According to Tawfiq, Sarahah passed 3 million registered users shortly after reaching Egypt. Even now, Sarahah is ranked as the 102nd most popular website in the country, according to rankings from Alexa, an analytics site that tracks the most popular websites by number of visitors.
Tawfiq still hadn’t spent money on marketing for Sarahah, either. But something about the anonymous messaging app was resonating with the Arab world.
“The society here, we’re very connected with family and friends, and we’re very honest,” Tawfiq told Mashable. “We express our feelings frankly we do it all the time.” But, Tawfiq says there can be social barriers that prevent people from speaking openly.
Breaking barriers, that’s what everybody wanted
“There are barriers like age, sometimes it’s the position, you can’t go to someone who is a grandfather and tell them everything you think about them,” he said. “Breaking these barriers, that’s what everybody wanted.”
Following Sarahah’s success in Arab countries, Tawfiq decided to finally create an app version of the service. He hired a third-party company to help with the development and Sarahah went live in the App Store June 13. It was the first time Sarahah was available in English, and the website received more than two million unique visitors a day for the first week.
Shortly after it hit the App Store, people all around the world began to notice Sarahah. The app started to gain traction in Canada, too. Tawfiq thinks it was bolstered by Arab expatriates living in Canada and soon, that helped garner the attention of other users in western countries, including people in the U.S. and Australia.
The app then started spreading like wildfire among social media-addicted teens who were posting links to their Sarahah profiles to Instagram Stories requesting anonymous feedback.
Then Snapchat rolled out a major update and changed everything. While teens were already swapping Sarahah messages on Instagram, Snapchat rolled out an update that let users post links to websites inside of snaps. It took only a few days before Sarahah reached a new level of popularity following the Snapchat update.
Snapchat launched its update on July 5. Three days later, Sarahah broke into the App Store’s top 1,500 apps for the first time, according to analytics from Sensor Tower. Four days later, it jumped to the #104 spot; two days after that, it was #17; and then, three days later, it reached #1, beating Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and every other major social network in just a matter of days.
Even at the time we published this article, the app remains in the number one spot in United States, Australia, Ireland, and Great Britain, according to data from Sensor Tower. It’s also ranked #5 overall in Google’s Play Store. According to Tawfiq, the app has more than 14 million registered users and is getting more than 20 million unique visitors a day between the app and website (you can leave messages for others without making your own account).
Now, because he’s struggling to keep up with the technical demands of so many users, Tawfiq says he plans to leave his job at the oil company to focus on Sarahah full time.
Though the rise of Sarahah can be mostly chalked up as a success story, critics have raised questions about whether the app’s anonymity actually encourages bullying. Tawfiq told Mashable he adamantly wants the service to be a positive place, but it’s hard to make the argument given some of the anonymity protections the app.
This isn’t the first time an anonymous messaging app has come under fire for cyberbullying. Other anonymous apps like Yik Yak, Secret, Whisper, and ask.fm have all tried and failed to build social networks relying anonymity. The key difference here is those apps never became popular at a global level, and none of them ever reached number one in the App Store.
Tawfiq notes that all social platforms face some version of these problems, and says he has been taking steps to minimize them, like filtering certain offensive words and allowing users to block people. “I really try my best to create an environment that’s positive,” he told Mashable.
For now, he’s focused on trying to keep the app running for all the new users. There are bugs to fix and users to support and servers to upgrade. We can only hope Tawfiq finds the time to address the app’s growing bullying problem in the near future.