A popular anonymous social app that misled its users with fake messages has been forced to change. The top-ranked app NGL, which became the No. 1 app in the US App Store in June, quietly rolled out an update yesterday whereby it now notifies users when they receive messages that aren’t from their friends – as users had previously been led to believe. Previously, NGL sent these fake messages as a way to create engagement and was then charged for “hints” about the sender of the message.
The app has now also lowered its subscription prices, which promises to reveal details about who is behind the anonymous messages.
NGL is one of the few anonymous social apps that recently shifted their focus to Instagram after Snapchat tackled these types of apps using its developer tools, as part of Snap’s wider efforts to reduce harm to minors.
To use NGL, users tap a button in the app to copy a unique URL that they can share with friends and followers across the web.
While Snap was able to prevent direct integration with its own developer tools, NGL users could still copy and paste the dedicated link into their Snapchat stories or wherever they wanted, such as Twitter or any other app. However, a ‘Share’ button in the app made it easy to post directly to Instagram Stories. When others saw the link in their friend’s story or post, they could click it to anonymously ask that person a question. These questions appear as messages in NGL’s in-app “Inbox” for users to read and answer.
However, NGL had a trick up its sleeve. If users didn’t get engagement on their shared link, the app itself would generate posts automatically. Users were not really aware that these messages were actually fake questions that the app was sending them. But many suspected that was the case, because the questions sounded like things their friends wouldn’t ask. (We confirmed that the messages were fake by generating an NGL link but not sharing it. We then received messages).
NGL’s app reviews are full of complaints that the questions seemed to come from bots. Even worse, the app developer asked users for “hints” to learn more about who asked the question. This means that in some cases users paid for hints about bots! This can be classified as fraud. (We recommend that affected users request a refund from Apple.)
The NGL app got its ideas from rival Sendit, a similar social app that also offers a variety of Snapchat games. In fact, Sendit’s creator is now suing NGL for stealing its ideas – the NGL developer previously worked on Sendit before realizing its potential by simply cloning the idea and raking in the money itself. Turns out there’s some business here. By July, NGL had reached 15 million downloads and raked in $2.4 million in revenue from selling its subscriptions.
TechCrunch had called out NGL for its deceptive tactics and apparently someone was listening. (Actually, we do understand that there has been a discussion between the developer and Apple about this). NGL has not responded.
Yesterday, NGL released an update in which it now labels its fake posts with a tag that reads “sent with ❤️ from the NGL team.” This is to indicate that the message is not from a friend, but from the app itself. (Undoubtedly, the wording could be clearer. Some users — especially among the target audience of young adults — might interpret this tag to mean that the message is simply delivered by the app.)
These messages also don’t show a subscription prompt. In addition, the subscription cost has been reduced slightly from $9.99/week to $6.99/week and now includes features other than “hints”. For example, it praises users getting “early access” to exclusive games in addition to the anonymous Q&A. One of the paid games is already included – an anonymous confession game.
The rival Sendit’s Q&A feature worked in much the same way and it too just updated its subscription. Rather than just asking for hints, Sendit “Diamond Members” can reveal the sender’s name and Bitmoji (in some cases), access exclusive games, unlock a custom icon, and remove ads from the experience, the app claims. However, the price still remains $9.99 per week.
While the viral buzz around these apps has subsided a bit since then, they still remain highly ranked. NGL is the No. 9 app in the US App Store’s Lifestyle charts and Sendit is the No. 12 of social networking apps.