Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the nascent world of online social networking was a space where people could create and foster an online social persona to connect with friends. Jack Dorsey limited the length of a user’s tweet to 140 characters. Evan Spiegel further simplified social networks by replacing the emphasis on written messages with picture and video sharing. Thanks to their innovations, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are today important bedrocks of young adult social media. Contrary to what their creators might claim, however, none of these startups were founded with the purely altruistic goal of fixing a specific public issue.
Dartmouth student Sanat Mohapatra ’20 is bucking that trend with a new startup he co-founded called Unmasked. Founded as a non-profit, Unmasked aims to tackle a problem that exists on college campuses everywhere: hidden and pervasive mental health issues within the student body. The increased workload, the difficulty in responsibly handling newfound freedom away from home and the demanding academic environment make college campuses petri dishes for stress and depression. Nowhere is this truer than at elite, competitive colleges like Dartmouth.
Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are all platforms where friends can share news or updates with one another. Unlike those, Unmasked has the explicit goal of hiding the identities of its users. Whereas many students are hesitant to display mental health issues publicly due to a widespread stigma surrounding mental health, students may feel free to discuss what is bothering them on the app. By masking their identity, struggling students will paradoxically be taking off their inner masks.
Creating an account on Unmasked, which Mohapatra is hoping to release to campus this fall, will require Dartmouth NetID credentials. Students operating the back-end of the app will not be able to see which accounts are associated with which students. Mohapatra and his team are still figuring out the logistics of implementation, but they expect to use some sort of encryption or randomly generated ID number to maintain anonymity.
In order to develop the app, Mohapatra is partnering with a team at the Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation (DALI) Lab. During weekly meetings, he provides DALI with content and direction so that they can turn his vision into a functional, user-friendly product. Additionally, he has communicated with the Dartmouth administration for some guidance. For instance, the IT Department has promised to help him integrate the app with Dartmouth’s Web Authentication system.
In trying to get approval to use the Dartmouth name in the app title, Mohapatra has also met with Dartmouth’s legal team. He hopes that if he can call the app Dartmouth Unmasked, students will feel more comfortable using it and will consider it a legitimate place to go to for support. Mohapatra discussed with Dartmouth’s legal department any potential liability issues that might arise for Unmasked. He is trying to avoid the mistakes that were made by Bored at Baker. A former anonymous posting app part of the “Bored at” network, which ran into troubles in 2014 when a user posted a detailed guide on how to rape a specific student. Dartmouth’s campus organized in protest after the student said she was sexually assaulted as a result of the post.
Mohapatra is pursuing methods to moderate the app in order to prevent that type of problem. A group of trained students will help run the app as moderators and supporters. This team, who will appear anonymous like any other user, will ensure that each student’s post receives a response. Additionally, Unmasked will rely on a community moderation ethic, so that each user is responsible for keeping the app a safe space for everyone. If that inappropriate Bored at Baker post were on Unmasked, it would quickly be flagged by a user, removing it from public view until a moderator reviews it. Users who post malicious comments could be permanently banned from the app. In addition, Mohapatra is considering pursuing punishments for students who post particularly inappropriate or offensive content. Those students may face disciplinary consequences as well as being blocked from creating a new account.
Mohapatra had the idea for Unmasked around a year ago. Using the now-defunct Yik Yak, he observed the well-known community of “trolls” on the app who just wanted to mess with other users. However, he also noticed another prominent group using the application.
“What is interesting is that with anonymity, there was another whole community of people who were looking for support on Yik Yak,” Mohapatra told me. “They saw this anonymous outlet as a good place to really be real and say what was going on.”
Unfortunately, the confluence of these two different groups of people led to some poor interactions. Mohapatra gave an example of one such interaction.
One student would post a message like this: “Hey, I just failed a test. I don’t know what to do. I’m struggling a lot.”
The trolls’ response: “Go kill yourself.”
Mohapatra imagined an anonymous community in which anyone could be “real” and discuss their issues without fear of social backlash. During the spring term of his freshman year at Dartmouth, Mohapatra began reaching out to struggling Yik Yak users via direct message. What he discovered were people with serious issues who had no one to help them. Mohapatra developed a supportive relationship with some of these Dartmouth students over the course of the term. Just before Yik Yak shut down in May 2017, Mohapatra posted a message to the app asking if people would be interested in using an anonymous app devoted to providing peer-to-peer support. He received a resoundingly positive response.
Referring to one particularly depressed student whom he was trying to support, Mohapatra said, “he reached out to me and he essentially said, ‘Hey. Obviously I’ve been struggling a lot, but I think your idea is really interesting. I’d love to be involved.’” Mohapatra said that this message showed him that “there’s a lot of value in creating community connections so that people who are struggling know they’re not alone, so that they could reach out and talk to people and have a level of empathy with one another.”
Mohapatra has been asked how Unmasked will differ from Dartmouth’s own mental health support pathways. The difference, he says, is that all of Dartmouth’s methods involve “vertical power relationships.” For sensitive issues, students might feel intimidated to share everything that’s bothering them to an employee at Dartmouth, especially if those issues involve drug or alcohol use. Unmasked, on the other hand, will be a “horizontal power relationship” so that students can feel comfortable going to peers for help.
Unmasked will also fix another issue with Dartmouth’s mental health support system. During test weeks, Dick’s House gets inundated with requests for support appointments. Since not all students can be seen in a timely manner — and since Dick’s House determines the urgency of who to help by a phone call, which could deter some people from seeking support in the first place — Mohapatra hopes that students will be able to use Unmasked to get help when other methods have failed.
During his freshman spring, as he was developing the idea for Unmasked, Mohapatra learned the lesson that many prospective startup founders have come to appreciate: having an idea is not the same as turning it into a real product. “How do I develop this app?” he asked himself. “I’m an English major, not a [Computer Science] major.”
He pitched Unmasked to the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network for funding but did not get selected. With no money to develop the app and no experience in coding, Mohapatra hit a dead-end and decided to put the idea on hold for the time being. During his sophomore year at Dartmouth, he joined Dartmouth’s Mental Health Focus Group. This past winter, a fellow member of the group approached him offering to help get the app off the ground.
That student, Jenna Salvay ’20, combined efforts with Mohapatra to apply to partner with DALI. When DALI accepted them, Mohapatra and Salvay had to come up with $7,500 to cover the partnership. Since they were accepted in March, they have been busy applying for grants and looking for other funding sources to meet that goal. Though they have not yet been awarded any startup grants, they have created a GoFundMe page, and they have partnered with Alpha Theta to raise money. For now, Mohapatra and Salvay are using DALI’s “rainy day fund,” which allows its partners to work with DALI without yet reaching their funding goal.
Fundraising is a huge challenge for any new startup. “Obviously funding doesn’t come overnight and I’m not necessarily surprised by how many different outlets you have to try to locate to raise money, but it’s definitely something to think about if you’re looking to do something like this,” Salvay said.
Mohapatra has been attending networking and entrepreneurial conferences at Dartmouth in the hopes of getting fundraising advice and finding alumni to provide funding. As much time and effort as finding funds takes, though, it is hardly all that Mohapatra and Salvay have to do. Mohapatra said that he spends hours each day working on networking, sending emails to directors of comparable programs at other schools, working through potential liability issues, planning for its release, brainstorming marketing strategies and more.
The Unmasked team is putting together ideas for a sort of viral marketing campaign this fall. For instance, Mohapatra is considering setting up a “confession booth” in Collis, where students could sit down, talk about their problems anonymously and leave (with encouragement from Mohapatra to get the free app if they wish to continue the discussion).
He wants students on campus to immediately notice the marketing tactics because he knows that Unmasked will benefit most from word-of-mouth recommendations. “Everyone knows someone who could be helped by getting the app.”
He is particularly concerned with getting word out to the new ’22s on campus. Without yet having a social safety net to rely on, freshmen at college campuses are most at risk of developing mental health issues. If freshmen were to use this app, he thinks they would realize that they are hardly the only ones going through troubles.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” This quote was part of Mohapatra’s inspiration in finding an alternative to college-sponsored mental health solutions. For this app, though, Mohapatra’s time commitment is well worth it. With Unmasked, he is taking bold strides to provide a workable alternative to campus mental health issues, an alternative that could make a significant difference in the lives of countless students for years to come. Don’t be surprised to see Unmasked at colleges everywhere in the years to come.