Like any other social media app, Anecdote’s home screen features a scrolling feed of posts, with view, like, and comment counters. Posts don’t contain just text and images, but are instead centered around 1-3 minute audio snippets. The “trending” tab highlights posts responding to prompts like “What’s one sad memory that you’ll keep from this year?” or “Who’s someone you’ll be thankful [for] after this is over?”, while an orange button invites users to record their own. Clicking a post allows you to hear the poster’s own voice telling a short story about their plants, their family, their first love. In contrast to the polarizing, surface-level, short-attention-span optimized thralls of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the collection of voices playing from Anecdote feel personal and genuine, some even heartfelt and vulnerable.
Anecdote launched on the iOS App Store in July. Sanha Lim, Anecdote’s founder and a junior at Duke University, describes the app as a platform for storytelling. The idea for Anecdote began, Lim tells me, with the stories of his parents and family. “My mom was telling me how she would go out to food stalls in Korea and get tteokbokki [spicy rice cake], and they’re super interesting stories...my grandfather, my dad’s dad, passed away recently and I realized, I will never get to hear his stories. Within every person, there’s so many incredible, enjoyable, valuable stories, and I was really sad that there isn’t a way to keep them. That’s initially why I built Anecdote, because I wanted a place where people could share their stories and be able to show authentic pieces of themselves.”
Anecdote’s purpose later evolved beyond just capturing individual stories. Lim names a variety of current events, emphasizing the importance of storytelling especially in the present day. “The world is shifting around us. It’s going to be accelerated by the pandemic, it’s going to be accelerated by all these movements happening right now. We need to capture those stories. By allowing people to hear these stories, we can build a community, build a world that is more actually connected together.”
Surveying existing social media platforms, Lim found that they fail to truly connect people. “Facebook always says they’re trying to build a world that’s connected, but it’s no good if we’re just numbers on a friend list. We need to actually know each other as people.” Lim contrasts this with StoryCorps, which publishes interviews with everyday people, and Humans of New York, photographer Brandon Stanton’s project to provide “daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City” through photographs and short interviews published in books and on his blog. It’s a rarity to be featured in Humans of New York or StoryCorps, though. Anecdote aims to bring the power of authentic storytelling to a much bigger user base: as Lim puts it, a “democratized place [for people] to share their stories.”
Lim’s faith in the power of stories is neither limited to nor new with Anecdote. Before deciding to major in computer science and become an entrepreneur, Lim was a journalist, an editor for his high school student newspaper and reporter for Duke’s The Chronicle. On various online profiles, Lim calls himself a “storyteller,” and his past experience continues to guide and inform his work now. Regarding people’s willingness to share stories on a platform like Anecdote, Lim tells me: “I’ve seen the deep desire for people to tell these stories in my time as a journalist, in my time as a writer...you go to these people and you ask them to build their lives for you. And most people are pretty personal! I’ve heard too many personal things. I’m like, ‘why are you telling me this?’ I think that just shows — people want to tell their stories, they’re just looking for someone to listen…[and] there’s not many people or places where people are really listening.”
“Even beyond that, though, stories are beautiful,” Lim continues. “I’ve had the privilege to go to really beautiful places, in Europe and around the U.S. But they’re just places. I look at them like, wow, but when I come in the next day, it’s the same place. When I was traveling, what I enjoyed most was when I got to sit down with people and experience what people’s lives were like daily. A pretty building...it’s cool to see in person, but it’s also cool to see in a picture. The things that you can’t experience unless you go there are people’s lives and stories, who they are. When I got to experience that, that’s when I felt my travel was worthwhile, not when i got to see the canals in Venice or the Eiffel Tower in France.”
Most of the content on Anecdote right now is, as Lim puts it, “a wide range of personal stories.” When choosing a prompt for a new recording, the “Current Events” tab contains questions like “What’s a story that shows how different working from home has been?” or “When did you first realize how serious these past events have been?”, while the “Life” tab contains more general prompts like “What is your favorite childhood memory?”
With social issues like “systemic racism” among the reasons given for Anecdote’s relevance, I asked Lim if there were plans to encourage political or public discourse on the app in addition to these personal stories. “There are definitely a bunch of different directions we can take,” he replied. “People have mentioned places for coaches and experts to share short advice. There’s a potential for, like you said, political discourse, for people to explain why they believe what they believe.”
In general, though, Lim emphasizes that the value of Anecdote is in its personal story-centric design. “Right now what’s important is to set the tone and the feeling of the community. Political discourse… can get pretty toxic, to the point where people suggest not bringing up politics in family conversations or between friends, because it tends to ruin the mood.”
Lim frames Anecdote’s storytelling focus as a way to foster better, more productive political conversation. “I think one of the most powerful ways [to talk about politics] is tied to actual personal stories — like why do you believe what you believe?” He brings up the 2016 election as an example. “It was very difficult for a lot of people who leaned left to understand why people voted for Trump, many people who weren’t even Republican. But when you dive deep into the kind of hurts, the kind of desires that they had, intermixed with a lack of information or misinformation, it suddenly makes sense, you know? They still might not be right… but you can understand and work towards understanding a lot better if you get this sense of why they’re there.”
For now, Lim sees Anecdote as a supplement to other social media apps rather than a replacement, but hopes that Anecdote can be part of a larger movement towards better ways of connecting online. “I hope Anecdote can be a transition to more real, more intimate connections. Maybe at some point, replace Facebook, replace these platforms as a way to actually connect to people.”
Anecdote is still early in its trajectory, with some 150 downloads and 100 signups, according to Lim, but Lim’s aspirations for the app are high.
To date, the app’s development was largely a solo project: seven days a week, 8-10 hours a day from May until July, Lim tells me, supported by funding and mentors at Duke and an online CS community called Summer of Shipping. Since launch, Lim has brought on team members to help with marketing and design. “Once people started joining, it started to feel a lot more real, like, there are people working on it who believe in the product,” Lim reflects. “It also is terrifying because, when I was working on it myself, if I fail it’s just my personal failure. But if it fails now, [there’s a team counting on me].” Lim’s team is applying to Y Combinator, a prestigious startup accelerator that companies like AirBnB, Doordash, and Dropbox once went through, and has been reaching out to venture capitalists and angel investors. “I want to pursue this as far as it can go,” Lim says.
“[Building a world that’s connected is] hard to do with social media,” Lim acknowledges. “Real relationships take time and effort, but if we can help people get a snippet of what other people’s lives are like, maybe we can make the world a little better that way.”