How the Whisper app could help, but doesn’t

Patrick St. Pierre

A new app called Whisper is gaining popularity among college students across the country. Whisper is a social platform that allows users to anonymously share secrets — hence the name — that they couldn’t comfortably share out loud. User posts, also referred to as “Whispers,” consist of brief, stylized text on top of an image or photo. Most Whispers are comical and innocent, like one set on the background of the UT Tower that reads, “Sometimes when I walk through campus at night I ask the Tower for advice.” But others are decidedly less benign, like one set against a picture of a young girl posing in the mirror, the text reads, “Working out used to be my outlet for stress relief but I can’t even do that anymore because of the cuts on my legs and arms.”

Earlier this week, a Texan article praised the Whisper app for “helping students feel a greater connection to their peers.” Indeed, there is value in giving young people a place to speak their minds in complete candor and anonymity. Marian Trattner, the Council and Mental Health Center’s suicide prevention coordinator, says that the Whisper concept can be beneficial to students.

“First, the user may feel some sense of relief getting that pain or suffering off of their shoulders,” Trattner said. “And it’s also often a positive for students to have that peer-to-peer connection around a common issue.” Sure enough, the Whisper app is equipped with a “ME2” button, which provides a chance to show the original poster that you sympathize. Users can even post full responses to posts that would ideally include positive feedback, encouragement, or advice.

Sadly, social platforms rarely operate so altruistically.

Instead, many of these alarming Whispers go without productive community response. One of the problems is that it’s difficult to know how to offer assistance to someone calling for help on an anonymous social media platform.

“There is a negative to this sort of social media sharing in that there is no access to resources,” Trattner said. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, and nearly all major universities offer extensive counseling and student resources.

A Whisper representative at UT acknowledged that the staff monitors the Whisper feed and deletes posts containing personal information, as it counteracts the app’s premise of anonymity. Other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have incorporated ways for users to report suicidal or concerning content, which prompts an automated response to the user in question providing details of regional and national suicide prevention hotlines and counseling centers. Some Facebook users might take offense at their personal updates being construed as suicidal red flags. But Facebook is demonstrating its commitment to the suicide prevention effort, which it sees as worthwhile despite the occasional disgruntled user.

The Whisper app is not unlike the actual mouth-to-ear whispers predating the days of social media. Then, like now, when a friend heard a worrisome admission, a referral to a support system was customary. If, for the sake of anonymity, it becomes difficult to reassure those in need of support that they’re not alone and that there is help out there, then the secret-sharing platform should take on that job.

I’m confident that the app’s administrators recognize that moral obligation and will implement some referral or support mechanism to aid users in need. But until that happens, the student community can pick up the slack. If you see a concerning Whisper, reply with a photo of the Student Services Building and the text, “You’re not alone. Help is right here. CMHC.”

And while you’re there, ask the Tower for some advice. At UT, counseling abounds.

St. Pierre is an English junior from Austin.