Anonymous social apps have a history of turning into bullying and harassment, which ultimately led to their failure. But a new startup called Ghost believes putting extra guardrails around the anonymous experience will allow users to have fun, without the usual drawbacks. To test this theory, the company has now launched its Ghost messaging app that allows users to share an anonymous message in a group chat with friends to flirt, joke or ask questions without revealing their identities. The app also includes a range of other features, including the ability to ask ChatGPT a question directly in the group chat, among others.
The idea, explains Ghost founder Cem Kozinoglu, was to create something that was fun to use, yet respected the user’s desire for privacy. To achieve this, the app uses something it calls “Ghost Protocol,” a system that uses zero-knowledge proofs on the end user’s device.
For example, the app knows who has access to a certain group chat, but Ghost – the company itself – does not.
Thanks to his entrepreneurial background, Kozinoglu understands the motivations of social app users. Prior to Ghost, the founder served as Director of Mobile at GIPHY after the company acquired its Techstars-backed startup /Slash Keyboard. He’s seen the latest trends in teen apps, but believes there’s potential to be socially anonymous in a way that’s more secure without enabling bad behavior.
“We started playing around with this concept and because of the anonymity it also suited the name ‘ghost’ very well,” explains Kozinoglu. “But we also know that there is a dark side to anonymity. [There are] these apps come from – Gas [which was acquired by Discord], Slay – and they focus purely on interrupting the chat and giving positive feedback to your colleagues… what we’re doing is kind of like ‘Gas meets Discord’. We want to add different flavors of anonymous messages,” says Kozinoglu.
For example, one type of anonymous message that Ghost enables is anonymous crushes. A user can tell the group that he is in love with someone without the sender revealing his name. Then, if the other person has a crush on them as well, they can have a private chat, similar to Tinder.
In a group chat for a school classroom, anonymity can allow students to ask questions of peers who may or may not be close friends.
There are also hidden messages that allow users to see who cares most about them as the sender is notified who revealed the message.
“Guess Who” messages initially hide the sender, allowing users to guess who sent the message.
Not all of these anonymous posts are live yet, but Kozinoglu says the Anon Crushes feature should be ready to ship next week.
To add protection around anonymity, Ghost uses a moderation system that automatically deletes any Ghost message (anonymous message) if at least two people report it. If the same bad guy then sends two ghost messages that get reported, the app will block their anonymous identity in that particular group chat. That is, the app does not block the user themselves from the group chat, only their ability to post anonymously to the group. (In fact, the app itself doesn’t even know which user should be blocked for using Ghost protocol. It only know which anonymous identity to restrict.)
Finally, if the attacker is reported in three different groups, resulting in their anonymous identity being banned, they will no longer be able to use “ghost mode” in a group chat.
The Ghost branding appears alongside other features such as the ability to be online but invisible, which is called Ghost status.
The group chats are limited to 50 users so they don’t get overly large like on Telegram. The idea is that users should actually know each other in some way. This is also enforced by requiring users to allow the app to access their contacts – and there’s no way to skip this permission request, we found.
Another cool and current feature is the ability to use ChatGPT (the ChatGPT-3.5 turbo model) from within the group chat, allowing users to ask the chatbot questions and interact with the bot as a group.
“It’s one of the first [use cases of] Multi-player ChatGPT within a group chat, Kozinoglu said in a follow-up email. “It is completely context-aware. It has been one of the most used features,” he added.
Kozinoglu says the goal is not to necessarily replace other messaging apps, but to become known for the format it introduces.
“In the case of Snapchat, they owned disappearing messages,” he notes. “In our case, we want to own anonymous posts – every flavor of anonymous posts – and be an alternative place where it’s fun. It’s nice to be anonymous. It’s nice to be able to talk to others and have your pure freedom of expression. let them do it,” says Kozinoglu, which is especially important for the Turkish founder, who knows firsthand how difficult it is to express yourself under a government rule that restricts freedom of expression.
The company behind Ghost, Catch Social, was actually founded three years ago, but had originally developed a different product aimed at adding chat to a crypto wallet-to-wallet application. A previous co-founder, also of GIPHY, had worked on that project but left the startup about six months ago. There are now nine employees, including two contractors.
To date, Ghost has raised $8 million in two seed funding rounds from investors including Slow VC, Coinfund, General Catalyst, Betaworks, DreamMachine, Afore VC, 186 VC, D4 and several angels such as GIPHY founder Alex Chung, Wayne Chang, Jeff Siebert and others.
Some of that money is now spent on customer acquisition – Ghost does a lot of TikTok marketing. But Kozinoglu says they’ve reduced Ghost’s acquisition cost to 15 cents per install and are now focusing more on working influencers, not just running ads.
With increased demand for ChatGPT after the launch of GPT-4 and news from Microsoft around Bing, Ghost is focusing more on its own ChatGPT features, which it calls “Ghost Question”. The startup is waiting for access to ChatGPT 4, Kozinoglu notes.
The app had a waiting list of over 50,000 signups before launch. Ghost has since pulled 30,000 installs after last week’s public launch and is now hovering around the number 50 position in the US App Store’s Social Networking category.