On Nov. 16, a portion of the student body received an email on their Swarthmore.edu addresses from an app called “Looped.” The emails were identical, and they invited students to “find out” more about a featured post: “So, is the university going to address this no frats no party shit? Like there are literally no good parties. This shit is trash! Not how I envisioned the college experience to be like.” The subject lines stated that “A friend invited you,” but none revealed who sent the invitations.
The email drew questions about whether a student at the college had written the post, given that Swarthmore is not a university and is rarely, if ever, named as such by its students. The comment featured in the email referred to the recent ban on Greek life, which made national news last spring following the leak of private documents from the two fraternities on campus and weeks of intense student protest and controversy. As such, it stirred up more controversy and frustration when the topic resurfaced.
Little information about the app is available except for what is on the app’s sparse webpage. The only information connected was its developer, listed on the app store as Afari. Upon publication of this article, The Phoenix has been unable to confirm that the platform exists beyond the campuses of Swarthmore, Haverford, and Princeton.
The app was created by Princeton graduates Avthar Sewrathan, Richard Adjei, and Felix Madutsa who founded Afari Inc. (then called BlockX) in their last year of college.
The company participated in Princeton-run programs and competitions and garnered over $115,000 in funding. They won the $15,000 first prize in the TigerLaunch entrepreneurship competition, a competition run by Princeton students that included 300 teams from across the U.S. and France. They participated in Princeton’s Keller Center eLab Accelerator the following summer, where they received mentorship, funding, lessons on entrepreneurship, and a workspace to develop Afari further. In Oct. 2018, they won $100,000 as part of Blockstack Public Benefit Corporation’s “Request for Social Networks” Initiative.
The team is now comprised of two of the original three, Adjei and Madutsa. Afari Inc. much like other blockchain-based startups, made data privacy and security a central part of their mission statement for their first product, now defunct. While Twitter and Facebook sell users’ data to advertisers — and store data in central servers that are vulnerable when breached — Afari proposed to create an alternative form of social media, one that gave users control over their data, prevented censorship from a central governing body or company, and moved away from a monetization model that relied on selling data to third parties.
Though Afari Inc. made no similar promises about Looped, it is a confusing next step given the company’s mission. The Looped app is not built on blockchain, and it failed to protect user privacy in the Swarthmore loop, as Jesse Li ’22 found in a blog post on Nov. 16.
Adjei and Madutsa were contacted by The Phoenix but did not provide a comment.
Deputy University Spokesperson for Princeton University Michael E. Hotchkiss said in an email statement that Afari no longer maintains its connections to the University.
“While the founders of Afari participated in the Keller Center’s summer accelerator program in 2018, the Looped app was not part of their work in the program. The Keller Center and the University have no ongoing formal relationship with the company.”
Looped is similar to the now-defunct Yik Yak, an app that showed posts from anonymous users in the same geographic location in one feed. Yik Yak rose to popularity in colleges and high schools all over the U.S. between 2013 and 2014, before widespread incidents of cyberbullying caused many high schools and colleges to ban the app.
Unlike Yik Yak, Looped encloses users in private “Loops” rather than opening feeds to anyone who stumbles onto campus. And Looped includes several non-anonymous channels, like a “Free Food” channel. The creation of new icons for each post also makes it easy for users to simulate conversations with themselves.
Many students immediately expressed concern about the app and the comment after the email invitation had been sent out, as Voices covered in an article on Nov. 26. To some students, such as Joy George ’20, the email was an unwanted reminder of last semester’s events.
“Y’all wanna bring back Yik Yak so bad huh… man if you wanna talk about the party scene talk to your friends about the types of parties you want to have and then host them. Talk about what you’re willing to allow—and not allow—at your parties. Talk about the struggle that hundreds of students went through to make this campus safer—and the fact that most of us are still healing from the fuckery of last semester,” George wrote in a post in the main college Facebook group an hour after the emails were sent. “Talk to each other, stop hiding behind a damn app.”
The email had a negative impact on other students as well. Christian Alfaro ’21, who also received the email, was disconcerted that someone had used his contact information without his consent. He felt that the Looped posts that criticized students who protested last spring or supported the ban on Greek life revealed a harmful culture on campus.
”It shows that campus, especially white students, students who come from money [and/or] privilege, and ex frat boys and frat supporters still think that parties and fun are more important than people’s safety,” he said. “The fact that someone said the party scene was dead was fucking wack to see … because those same people who say the party scene sucks are those same people who show up to affinity group parties, [parties held by people of color], and proceed to take up space and disregard the fact that there are party spaces that aren’t theirs.”
He also felt that the anonymous channel of the app was dangerous in the College’s current climate.
“[Anonymous social media] is what festers and creates sentiments of hate [and/or] violence against others because you can say and express anything without having it traced back directly to the person who said it, which then creates even larger issues,” he said. “It’s hard enough with social media, but [anonymous apps] … just show people are really scared to express how they feel and afraid to say it in person, or afraid to show their faces and say these sentiments, [and] it festers cowardice too if I’m being honest.”
A week after the first email, debate over the party scene had died down, but Looped remained popular. Despite the fact that many students assumed the app was a scam and deleted the email, or decided not to engage, posts regularly accrued anywhere from 25 to 50 “up votes.”
The platform included a wide range of posts: memes, humorously sexual posts, and even some confessional posts. One student posted, “just found out I got into my first choice PHD program. First gen/low income students in natural sciences out here” received 43 upvotes and some congratulatory comments. Another urged fellow students to be better allies for students of color.
Martin Rakowszcyk ’22, an avid user of Looped who says he joined to “troll these assholes” who bemoaned the lack of fraternities, found the candidness afforded by anonymity refreshing.
“it was interesting to hear people’s completely unfiltered opinions when they didn’t have a name … like Facebook, even within the meme groups, there’s just this carefully curated persona of like “I am the perfect individual and yes I am failing but I’m doing so in a hashtag relatable way.” Here’s its people like “does anyone want to have an orgy in Parrish bathroom, anyone want to do weed now.”
For Victoria K. ’21, the anonymity liberated her from similar concerns about approval on Facebook. If she was worried a post wouldn’t land in a Swarthmore meme group, she could just post it anonymously. She also mentioned that Looped posts tended to take a less serious tone. She gave an example of a post about Haverford that ended up in the Swarthmore memes Facebook group.
“I mean, it’s funny, like I have seen some things on Looped I’m still laughing about. People really do get creative,” she said. “Like, there’s this one thing that someone posted that I still think about. It’s just like the week ago, I don’t know when they posted it, but it was literally like, ‘Haverford kids poop on the floor’…And [Looped is] even more stupid than, like the Swarthmore meme group or like, Swarthmore shitposting [a private Facebook group]. I think in the meme group, things can get more political, I want to say, with the memes, like sometimes they’re more divisive, but this was just like the stupidest thing ever, which I liked.”
However, she was careful about what she posted. “I just came into it with the rationale of don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want people associating with you if it became un-anonymous for some reason,” she said.
Patrick Weiss ’22 also appreciates the ability to express his sense of humor without fear of judgment.
“I use the anonymity to really let out my bizarre, weird, and edgy sense of humor. I know that some people, especially those who don’t know me well, would be put off if they saw it on my non-anonymous pages,” Weiss said. “A good example of this would be one of my first posts that went something like: ‘Somebody stole my piss jug. If you find it DM me because I need it back.’”
However, other students were worried about the infrastructure of the app. For Li, a sophomore interested in cybersecurity, student speculation about privacy on the app encouraged him to explore the matter further.
“Security is generally really hard to get right, and the stakes are even higher for an app geared toward anonymity. So I thought I’d be able to find something interesting if I did a little digging,” he said.
Li found results that concerned him enough for him to post his findings — a blog post entitled “You’re Not Anonymous on Looped” — as a warning in the main student Facebook group. In the Nov. 23 blog post, Li stated that any user had access to a list of all members of the Loop, so even if a member had made an effort only to post anonymously, their account handle and profile could still be visible to other users of the app. Then, he found that these profiles could be linked to the anonymous posts — so hackers with a basic level of knowledge of cybersecurity, once given the invite code to the Swarthmore Loop, would be able to uncover this information as easily as he did.
He acknowledged in a post two days later, which he titled “You’re still not anonymous on Looped,” that the developers had fixed this security vulnerability since his previous post. However, he uncovered yet more oversights.
“I thought that it was good that he [Li] put them [the Looped developers, Adjei and Madutsa] on blast because honestly, this is a company that’s supposed to, you know, be anonymous, yet they didn’t even have basic security provisions,” Rakowszcyk said. “It was just a complete lie on its face, and then the more you look into the company that shadier it gets, and I’m glad that what he did finally exposed that.”
The subject that drew the most competing theories was the app’s post moderation policy. Multiple users mentioned to us that they had seen posts, often posts that are critical of Looped, disappear from the anonymous feed completely. Some of these posts contained no offensive language, impersonation or threats, and they did not go against the Content policy posted on the Looped site.
The Phoenix found that after a post received a total of five net downvotes, the post immediately disappears from the feed. It is possible, then, that posts criticizing Looped were simply unpopular with members of the channel. However, this policy, which Yik Yak also employed, is not listed anywhere in the app’s policies.
Afari’s mission and the company’s initial funding and reception makes it all the more surprising that the features of Looped are absent of much of Afari’s original mission. Though Afari pledged to protect user data, Looped had vulnerabilities that compromised user’s anonymity and privacy. In addition, The “Request for Social Networks” Initiative called for apps to be built on Blockstack. However, Li found that the app stores its data in a central server rather than in a blockchain; he was able to see that the data was stored using Amazon Web Services, “the traditional cloud infrastructure that Blockstack is supposed to replace,” he said.
Without any posts explaining or even promoting the creation of the Looped app coming from the co-founders, the reason why they created this app, why they created an app with an anonymous channel, and why they created a Loop at Swarthmore, remains a mystery.
Jacinta Fernandes-Brough contributed reporting.