After seeing many of his peers at Dartmouth College struggle with their mental health during his freshman year, Sanat Mohapatra decided he had to do something about it.
That’s how Unmasked, a social media application focused on anonymous peer-to-peer support, was born.
Mohapatra, now a senior at Dartmouth, recently spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello to tell him more about his new app.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
So I can talk a little bit about the backstory. So I used Yik Yak a lot, which was a really popular anonymous social media app that was prevalent on college campuses all across the country. It was known as the anonymous social media app and was in high use at Dartmouth.
I used Yik Yak a lot my freshman spring and it was known as a humor platform, a lot of trolls, but I noticed that there were a lot of students at the school reaching out for mental health support on the app. And Yik Yak wasn't necessarily a good forum for those kinds of messages. Yik Yak shut down because of trolling and harassment. And so I realized there's clearly a need for an anonymous outlet for students that are struggling to reach out for support.
So I was inspired to create Unmasked, which is like Yik Yak as an anonymous, location-based social media mobile application, but more focused on mental health.
Why the name Unmasked? How did you come up with that name?
So I came up with the name when I'd read this Oscar Wilde quote, that was "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth." And the general idea I saw was that you can't really know who's struggling with their mental health.
Like everyone's kind of just walking around campus saying hi to each other, asking how they're doing. But some people, you know, say they're fine, but they're not really doing fine. And there's this general sense around mental health that you have to hide how you're really feeling. So I was like Unmasked is -- by giving people anonymity, it's letting people take off their masks and be real with each other.
Well, can you walk me through it? Maybe take out your phone and show me how the app works.
So the main idea is that there's a main message board and people are posting all throughout the day and it's generally pretty vulnerable content. I can read one of them out that might be helpful. They're generally pretty long, but it's like, "During winter term I have the recurring fantasy of just laying down in the snow and just fading away. It seems like such a pleasant way to go, and every time the wind breaks against my face, I'm reminded of it."
So I could comment and try to talk to this person. I can direct message them and there's just ways to facilitate conversations. So the primary functionality of the app is a message board. There's notification features so I can see the messages I've received and the comments I've gotten all to facilitate further conversation. And we do have pretty extensive moderation features.
So there's flagging, so anything malicious or even kind of off topic can be pretty quickly removed from the message board by moderators and by community members. And then the last part of the app is mental health resources that we think could be useful for people to see.
So people can start conversations about how they are feeling, like the example you just read, and people can respond to that with -- I'm guessing they respond generally with words of encouragement, like, first of all, don't lay down in the snow and fade away. You know, get up and get some help if you need to, go do something that you enjoy, maybe? Whatever the positive comments would be.
Right. Yeah. If you read through the app, there's so much positivity and encouragement. A lot of it is like, yeah, I understand. I'm also feeling pretty depressed, but here's what I've been doing to get through it. I hope you feel better. Let me know if you want to talk. Or a lot of people talk about like, yeah, I've started seeing a counselor. It's been really helpful for understanding these things.
But there's also generally prevalent theme of people being really ashamed that they're struggling with their eating or their body. They feel like they're not attractive. It feels like everyone else is hooking up with other people. Everyone else is dating other people. Why not me? And there's a lot of, kind of like, no, that's totally okay. There are many people that don't have all of these things. But the base idea is that you can talk about whatever you're feeling with no sense of judgment.
So is this limited to Dartmouth students using it? Or can anybody use it?
So, yeah, for now, it's just limited to Dartmouth students. And the point of that is that we think there's a common base of experience where it's like, okay, yes, they're strangers, but they're not Internet strangers on Reddit that are super far away that I don't really understand. It's like they're people that live within a 1-square-mile radius from me that are going through a very similar experience.
But like, I might be doing really well and they're really struggling. So there's a sense of more connection. Like I could be in the dining hall, walking by, responding to someone that's right next to me, but having no idea it's them. So I think I've kept it Dartmouth specific to kind of emphasize the closeness of the community and the importance of shared experience.