By Anna Jaffray
A mentoring program via anonymous chat which connects LGBT youth to adult mentors was born during a hack-a-thon sponsored by Change.org.
When Aaron Moy, one of the developers, was coming out he went on Craigslist and thought, “I’m sure I’m not the only person going through this.” He wanted to come up with a better way for LGBT youth to find safe mentors, with an emphasis on safe.
The website primarily targets LGBT youth, 14 and up, but Moy says they are keeping their options open for other uses. For example, Moy says the site’s platform could also be used by schools, hospitals or programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. However in the meantime, choosing mentors for those programs remains difficult and Moy sees the application as more of a stepping stone for programs who deal with other sensitive communities.
AnonyMou.se was runner-up at the SF HackforChange 2011. About 100 hackers worked over a 24 hour period producing 17 new applications created for the social good. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.org, worked with a panel of judges to award $10,000 in seed funding to the top three finalists, including AnonyMou.se, which received $3,000. The site also benefited from a recent article in Venture Beat.
Moy, Aashay Desai and Eliza Wee developed Anonymou.se. Moy originated the idea while Desai and Wee worked on development and design respectively. Although Wee has moved on to continue her work at her own company, Desai, Moy and new designer Micah Wolfe, are still dedicated to finishing the program. The program is still in its “beta” testing phase, but Moy says they hope to be live in a few months.
In response to questions about the application going mobile, Moy discussed the application‘s partnership with Twilio, a third party company which allows individuals to be able to use basic text messaging to engage in chat forums, on an anonymous platform. Moy recognizes that many kids don’t have a smartphone or don’t want to use the family computer to search coming out issues.
During the Beta phase, mentors and mentees do double time as test subjects and all are encouraged to give feedback in order to fine tune the new program. In tech-speak, the program is not yet “live”, but remains in “beta” form until the group can sort out legal contracts for mentor and user agreements. “Beta” indicates that users can log in and create accounts, however these accounts are primarily for testing purposes.
Fine-tuning the Mentor selection process is critical. Anonymou.se uses interviews, legal agreements and screening. The mentors currently displayed on the website, www.anonymou.se, are often friends of Moy, Desai, or friends of friends. Moy says that these mentors will likely stick with the program, but they too will have to go through the formal training and contract process once the site goes live. The mentors will be trained to recommend mentees to hotlines, such as the Trevor Project, for more serious concerns.
Although Moy hopes the mentors and mentees will create meaningful relationships, he stresses the importance of keeping the relationships on the website. “I want them to create a lasting relationship, but it is ultimately a risk…[we want them to]maintain and foster the relationship within the site, but keep it on the site.” Moy said, on the website, “the relationship is very controlled and there are too many risks to let it go beyond the website.”
Some have criticized the limited diversity of the current mentor panel, however Moy said, “…we are looking for a better mix, but we‘re still working on the group.” Once the program goes live, Moy hopes to increase the diversity of mentors, in terms of sex, gender identifiers, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other aspects.
Volunteers for the website and program development are encouraged and needed. Moy said there is a specific need for volunteer legal help and “front-end” development. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.