Rumr, Group Messaging With An Anonymous Twist, Launches On iOS And Android

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Say hey to rumr, a new messaging app that’s vying to draw your attention away from all the other ways to say hey already in play.

Rumr has been in the works for around half a year, raising an $800,000 seed back in October, led by Khosla Ventures‘ Ben Ling. Google Ventures‘ MG Siegler also participated in the round (Disclosure: Siegler is a columnist for TechCrunch but he had no input into this article — and, to my knowledge, was not aware I was writing it); along with Greycroft Partners; LA-based angel investor Paige Craig; and Scott Lahman, textPlus founder and CEO.

rumr is launching today as a free download for iOS and Android

Before you say ‘yeah, good luck with competing with WhatsApp/Facebook/Snapchat et al’ rumr’s twist is that it’s anonymous group messaging with friends. (Or at least, with people you actively choose to connect with for the purposes of identity-free chatting.)

This is not about anonymously chatting with Internet randoms/digital bottomfeeders, says rumr CEO and founder James Jerlecki, who brings a background in messaging to this startup, having previously worked for textPlus. rumr is about “controlled anonymity” — aka, having a bit of free-flowing fun with your friends.

Instead of having name tags next to them, chats are assigned colours so the conversation can flow without individual speakers being immediately evident.

Why would you even want to talk to your friends without each person knowing who’s saying what? Most likely for what my TC colleague Alex Wilhelm would refer to as shiggles. So basically having a bit of fun without everyone having to always be minding their Ps and Qs.

But Jerlecki reckons the rumr concept can also support more serious use-case applications. Conversations that are difficult to have honestly in person, whether that’s among family, friends or in a more professional sphere. He posits that rumr could be used by groups of teens to discuss personal issues without risking being singled out for the things they’re revealing. Or even, as a way for adult dudes and bros to talk ‘feels’ with each other. rumr_screen_ios

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about messaging and to us it always seemed there was something missing — as far as a place to let your guard down, a place where you didn’t always have to be perfect,” Jerlecki tells TechCrunch. “We wanted to create a chat experience that was more open and free-flowing so we thought the way to do that was essentially anonymity — but controlled anonymity.

“Because what’s always been missing for me with anonymity is context. It’s always been with some sort of broad audience, like if you look at Whisper it’s just out to people I have no connection with, I don’t really know them. And even Secret, it’s a smaller sub-set of that — it’s your address book — but who’s in your address book? I have thousands of contacts in my address book.. I don’t know who most of those people are.

“That to me is not compelling. What is compelling is a group of people that I know, that I trust on some level, that I can truly be myself with, that I can’t do on Facebook… I need a private forum to a place where I can let my guard down and that normally is with my friends.”

On the professional use-cases front, Jerlecki reckons the app could even work as a tool to aid social work, again to facilitate more honest group discussions. Part of the 100-strong beta trial for rumr has involved his sister using the app with a group of teens she works with, as a way for them to communicate with her without having to attach their identity to all the conversations they have with her.

So, in other words, helping to inject a little more honestly into unequal relationships — between dependents/minions and authority figures.

“What’s cool about this is it’s actually really flexible as a tool for communication,” adds Jerlecki. “It’s really good as a tool for saying things that are funny. And it’s also really good for conversations that are hard to have in person.”

Another possible professional scenario he brings up is for companies to use as an anonymous feedback forum — to, for instance, have a conversation about office culture.

“If I wanted to have a conversation about culture in an office, typically what I would do is I would get 10 people together, we’d go in a conference room and we would try and have that conversation. But everyone in that room has a different agenda… You can’t really be honest,” adds Jerlecki. “I think there’s a perfectly viable use-case [for rumr].”

No smoke without fire

Various rumours have been circulating about rumr prior to today’s dual platform launch. Aptly enough, these have been wide of the mark. rumr does not, contrary to what others have previously reported, allow one-way anonymity.

To be clear: all participants in rumr’s group messaging conversations are anonymous — identified only to each other by the colour their chats are (randomly) assigned. The use of colour for chats gives users a way to track the flow of conversations without individual identities being disclosed.

rumr_screen_AndroidEveryone in a rumr chat also knows who all the other chat participants are. But that’s all they all know. Identity is not attached to specific chats (although users can of course make guesses as to who’s who, based on what’s being said).

If there are only three people in a particular rumr conversation it’s probably not going to be too tough to figure out identities, hence Jerlecki describing the app as working on a “sliding scale of anonymity”; i.e. the more people you add, the more anonymity everyone gets.

And if people leave or join a chat there is a named notification that that has happened displayed in the chat window. However new colours are simultaneously assigned to all participants in order to continue masking everyone’s identities.

One-way anonymity might well have made the service more obviously open to becoming a conduit for bullying. Such problems have caused trouble for Q&A service Ask.fm, for instance, which does allow for one-way anonymity — and has run into problems with teen bullying.

rumr is having none of that. All its users are equally in the dark, so targeted nastiness isn’t quite so easy to achieve. Determined bullies will likely always find a way but rumr is not literally giving them a perfect tool. There is still potential for abuse — being as users’ identities are masked — but since every rumr participant is on an equal footing, there is at least a level playing field to make it harder for targeted nastiness with no chance for comeback.

(It should be noted that the app does also support one-on-one chats, so it’s conceivable that a co-ordinated group of users could end up ganging up on another user in an ongoing group chat by backchannel stealth — messaging each other til they figure out who’s who and then turning on the person who’s been identified. However pulling that off in practice would require multiple users to be considerably co-ordinated.)

Perhaps to dispel such unpleasant thoughts about its potential to foster nastiness, rumr has a cutesy Panda as its mascot — setting a cuddly, fun tone from the get-go. (The cartoon panda also hints at the stickers Jerlecki says will be coming in a future update.)

How is rumr going to deal with abusive users? To a degree, it has yet to fully figure that out as it wants to work that out with its users, once the service gets up and running. Jerlecki talks about maybe having a ‘time out’ function, where abusive users aren’t able to post for a certain period of time — as a way to ensure that abusive users aren’t just immediately unmasked when they’re kicked out of conversations.

In the meantime, the basic tools for keeping early rumr users safe from bad behaviour include the ability for users to report problem content (which he says rumr will look at on a “case by case” basis). The owner of the chat also has the power to kick anyone out, and chat participants can voluntarily leave each chat at any time.

Obviously, rumr is hoping for more constructive use — for fostering friendly sports chat, or becoming a sort of messaging meets gaming hybrid; a place where conversations devolve into guessing games as users have fun trying to figure out who’s saying what, or try to mask their own identity by mimicking the opinions of others.

Playing up the gamification element is a likely route to monetizing the app in future, with Jerlecki hinting that rumr has plenty of ideas relating to the central role of colour in the app.

Perhaps users could buy a ‘power up’ that lets them shuffle their own colour to another shade, to spread additional conversational confusion if they feel they are too close to being unmasked.

iOS + Android

As mentioned above, stickers are another monetization method in waiting, with Jerlecki arguing that visual media is likely to be even more important for rumr than for a vanilla messaging app, with users needing to find ways to communicate without giving away too many specific clues to their identity.

Photo-sharing will also be coming in future, but it’s not in v1 of the app as Jerlecki said the startup wants to be sure that feature is implemented safely, with no risk of it being abused. So, for now, rumr is purely text-based messaging — with its anonymity twist.

First order of business for rumr now is clearly user acquisition — not least because messaging is such a crowded and hyped space. The need to ramp up quickly to a critical mass of users explains the dual launch on iOS and Android. As for whether rumr will soon be looking to raise more funding to keep firing on all cylinders, that depends on how the launch blows up (or doesn’t).

“Secret did it in 45 days — maybe we’ll do it in 20. I don’t know,” says Jerlecki, jokily, on the funding point.