Anonymity has made the Internet fertile for free-for-all, unfettered hatemongering. But here in The City, a group of young entrepreneurs is looking to harness the power of anonymity for good.
On March 10, Aaron Moy and Aashay Desai launched AnonyMouse, a nonprofit online chat forum for LGBT youths wanting to connect with life-coaches without having to disclose their personal information. The idea for the website, www.anonymou.se, first came to Moy in 2011 while he was studying at UC Berkeley.
"Even though I live in an urban area and my friends and family are liberal, I was still grappling with my sexuality in college," Moy said. "I needed an outlet to get stuff off my chest."
The only resources available to Moy at the time were either crisis hotlines ("But it's not like I was suicidal," he said) or online chat rooms and Craigslist, both unsuitable for the type of vetted life-coaching Moy searched for.
So he decide to create a happy in-between, a website that focuses on averting crisis rather than trying to deal with it while the kid is already clutching to the ledge.
Three months after the launch, AnonyMouse now has 10 mentors, including Moy. Co-founder Desai is a heterosexual ally who wanted to use his tech expertise to combat bullying.
Each mentor undergoes training on how to converse with users. They are not allowed to meet in person or exchange emails or social media profiles, as liability issues prevent communication outside the AnonyMouse portal. If users join seeking counseling for suicide, rape or abuse, they are immediately referred to services such as The Trevor Project, which can better deal with crisis situations.
After going through training, mentors are tagged depending on their specific backgrounds — members of the military, athletes, transgender individuals or religious people — so that users can choose the counselor who can best relate to them.
Even though a majority of the users are in their teens and early 20s, AnonyMouse's services are available to every age bracket of the LGBT community.
"We've had a lot of users seeking advice on living a closeted life with wife and kids," Moy said. "We're still looking for the right mentor who can give guidance on this."
In addition to recruiting more volunteer mentors for the website, Moy is currently working with school districts across the country to have AnonyMouse become an official student resource.
AnonyMouse also is a recipient of Google Grants, which gave the nonprofit $10,000 a month in free AdWords. The grant is vital to the website's expansion since a majority of users have found the site via Google searches.
Using LGBT issues as testing grounds for online counseling, co-founders Moy and Deshai are hoping that the AnonyMouse platform can be adapted to help other groups of people. From alcoholism recovery to teen pregnancy life-coaching, the sponsor-oriented support networks and anonymous group therapies can be easily replicated on the Web.
"Therapists will tell you, sometimes you don't need to know who's on the other side as long as you know they're listening," Moy said.
Oscar Raymundo is the head of marketing at a leading LGBT media company. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.