Reach Combines Anonymous Chat With Keyword Self-Tagging For Context

Make way for another hyper local anonymous chat app. Reach, which has just launched on iOS, has been built by an Israeli-based startup, using $250,000 in pre-seed money from friends and family to cover their development costs. The team is looking to raise a seed round as it seeks to gain traction with its spin on anon.

Why on earth do mobile users need yet another way to anonymously chat with randoms in their general vicinity? Given there is already a panoply of choice — whether it’s Whisper or Secret or Yik Yak or Rooms or Chatous… to name a few of this noisy gaggle. Well, Reach’s team think they have cooked up something different enough to stand out — by focusing on people search. (And they will sure need something novel to stand any chance of being heard in such a noisy space.)

What do they mean by people search? Users of the Reach app are encouraged to create short text profiles of themselves (much like Twitter bios, but limited to just 70 characters) — so basically they are asked to self-tag their characteristics and interests. Suggested keywords on opening up the app, for those struggling to self-label, include things like ‘student’, ‘single’, ‘1st year’, ‘2nd year’, ‘vegetarian’ and so on.

Reach users are then able to browse these text profiles, or search for others by their keyword labels, and send a message if they want to chat with another user.

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Taking a leaf out of the Facebook/Tinder et al playbook, Reach’s initial marketing focus is university campuses. Specifically Manchester University in the U.K., although there is no limit on who can or can’t sign up. And there’s no verification layer — so you don’t need a university email address to gain access, or a Facebook log in, or anything.

So, in fact, there is no way  of knowing whether that 20-something ‘single’ ‘female’ ‘student’ who ‘loves yoga’ who you start talking to on the app is not actually a 40-something overweight bloke from Bedford. Especially as profiles are purely text-based. There are no photos at all at this point — although Reach’s COO Jessica Bohm tells TechCrunch the plan will be to add a photo-sharing option to the one-to-one IM chat feature down the line.

Another incoming feature — due in a few weeks — is a broadcast option that will let users send messages to all other users who are tagged with certain keywords. So, for instance, users could mass message people tagged ‘chemistry’, ‘student’ and ‘Manchester’. The idea being to make it easier to track down people with similar interests, skewed towards them also being in your general vicinity.

And, more to the point, to be able to talk to people with overlapping interests without having to tip your hand and reveal exactly who you are. Which may be useful if, for instance, you come from a certain religious background and are gay. Or, in a more everyday example, it could be a way to find someone who can give you study advice without the hassle of having to ask a classmate directly or find a senior studying the same subject.

“We are trying to solve the problem of people search,” says Bohm. “Due to privacy, identity and reputation issues, as well as the basic structure of social networks, we are prevented from reaching outside our social circles. Despite the wide variety of existing ways to connect, it is still difficult to find and instantly communicate with people specifically by their skills, unique attributes, hobbies, interests, knowledge, characteristics, habits etc.

“We’re making connections to people outside of your social circle instant — no more going via community groups, forums, LinkedIn recommendations or into the Facebook ‘other’ inbox — just direct mobile instant messaging, without any exchange of personal contact details.”

Of course one of the reasons why people do choose to communicate via an identity layer such as LinkedIn is to have some kind of certainty that the person they are contacting is who they say they are. Strip away that identity layer, and you might be talking to the proverbial Internet mutt. So sure communications may flow more freely but you can’t really be sure who the source is — and therefore how valuable the information is.

Early users of the Reach app appear to be frequently tagging their age, gender and partner status, so perhaps it might, in the short term, skew towards becoming a hook-up/flirting app — although without any photos (currently) and no verified identity it’s hardly going to compete with dating apps. But anonymous sexting — a la Kik or Fling — might be more what the users find to do with it.

Its forthcoming broadcast feature may bring something a bit more compelling — by offering users the ability to talk to likeminded communities within the app. But it remains to be seen how useful that is. And too much broadcasting may end up feeling spammy.

Broadcasts will be manually screened to prevent misuse of the feature, including, presumably to prevent egregious general spamming. They will also only be delivered to the nearest 50 users initially. Then an up vote/down vote feature will kick in — a la Yik Yak — and those with more up votes get to spread further.

The app makers also have a keyword blacklist for user profiles, and say they will generally be moderating the service to try to prevent abusive users. The problem being that digital anonymity is often synonymous with unpleasantness. And anonymous chat apps have especially struggled with bullying on their platforms, and with moderating the content some users create so they don’t drive others away from the service.

Secret, for example, pivoted at the end of last year to try to reset its usage. But as TC’s Sarah Perez noted then, anonymous apps often fall into a vicious cycle — where activity drops off if/when content becomes too anodyne. As she put it: “Let people misbehave, and the app buzzes with activity. Sanitize the experience to protect people’s feelings (and potentially users’ lives), and the app fails.”

Reach’s Bohm says the “last thing” the team wants is for “the communication to go in the direction of the meaningless and abusive content we see on Secret and Yikyak”. “Beyond protecting our users, it’s also in our interest to make 100% sure this doesn’t happen,” she adds.

But driving usage for a chat service where comms are moderated but identity isn’t verified is likely to run into lots of the sorts of problems we’ve seen before with these type of anonymous apps. And it’s not clear whether Reach’s feature-set is compellingly different enough to workaround such pitfalls.

The team’s grand vision is to let users “connect by any characteristic” with anyone in the world — and its future business model (the app is currently free) would likely look to attach to some sort of marketplace around linking up people with characteristics/skills that others might be happy to pay for. But they have a long way to go to get there. And a lot of users to convince that yet another anonymous social app is worth their attention.

“Reach is not practical or useful as an advice-focused app today and is several years away from becoming an app of this sort,” admits Bohm. “There will be many iterations to the product before then… Our current focus is getting people to engage with the app and to make discover-ability possible on Reach. We are not focusing on expertise or real identity at all at this stage — this is not relevant to today.”

Which sounds like another way of saying that anonymity can feel like a savvy launch strategy for messaging apps in a hugely crowded space — offering the promise of driving low-friction initial usage, and — hopefully — persuading some of those users to stick around over the longer term when the real identity of your business is revealed. But as other anonymous chat apps fizzling out of favor have shown, users with so little invested in an app are terribly fickle. They don’t feel any deep ties — so banking on them sticking around in time for a fully fledged business to emerge and take flight may not be a winning strategy over the longer term.