Capitol Hill feels a lot like a college, with thousands of twenty-somethings all working on the same campus, eating in cafeterias and taking summer recesses. Now the Hill even has its own Yik Yak with the launch of the anonymous forum Cloakroom.
Cloakroom is a mobile app where Washington insiders can anonymously post their thoughts. You can only use Cloakroom if you are in the Capitol building or surrounding offices or sign up using your House or Senate email.
Ted Henderson, the founder of popular app Capitol Bells and a former Rep. Dale Kildee staffer, says the app will never store your personal information. Although the app requires you to create an alias to post, you’re able to create up to five different nicknames.
Henderson said he hoped Cloakroom would provide a forum for Hill staffers to engage in candid conversation. Because of recent high-profile dismissals of staffers for comments on social media, many congressional employees are hesitant to even have Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“A lot of people who work on the Hill or in politics are very guarded on social media,” he said. “They can’t have the personality most of us have.”
Henderson wants Cloakroom to become a place where people can let that guard down. He emphasized that the app does not track information about its users, and users can delete their accounts and past posts at any time.
The app launched in March and got an early boost when Mike Allen, Politico’s chief White House reporter, mentioned Cloakroom in his daily email briefing Playbook. Henderson said the app has been downloaded about 1,200 times and about 600 users have been able to verify they are on Capitol Hill or are Congressional staffers. Earlier this week, Cloakroom added the ability to share pictures.
Conversations on Cloakroom are sometimes as silly as you would expect on an anonymous app, but congressional staffers said they have found out about important news from the app. For example, one staffer said he found out that two members introduced practically identical bills by reading Cloakroom.
Here’s a sampling from the app, where posts can range from water-cooler gossip about “skinterns” to jokes about lawmakers to news articles about upcoming legislation. (If you haven’t, check out Grassley’s amazing tweets here.)
Henderson and the staffers said conversation on the app heated up in March when Rep. Aaron Schock resigned. Staffers posted jokes, but it also became a forum to sympathize with the staffers losing their jobs and deliberate on rumors about the congressman’s expenses.
One House of Representatives staffer said reaction to the app on the Hill has been mixed. He said when he talks about it, he’s heard everything from that’s hilarious to you’ll probably lose your job for using that.
Henderson said he decided to make Cloakroom location based and not just dependent on Congressional email address verification because there are many people who are part of the political process who are not working directly for a lawmaker, from lobbyists to journalists.
However allowing journalists to have access to the app could have some drawbacks. One staffer said it was “inevitable” that a story is going to break on Cloakroom.
Already journalists look to Yik Yak when news breaks on college campuses. For example, CNN referenced posts on Yik Yak in its coverage of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chanting a racist song at Oklahoma State University. It’s likely some are already turning to Cloakroom for tips and gossip in Washington.
Henderson said he hopes that as Cloakroom begins as a place for jokes it will evolve into a forum where the people working in Congress can discuss policy and share information with one another — for example about how citizens in California’s 16th District feel about a particular bill.
This is not his first foray into mobile apps. He also created Capitol Bells, a popular app that alerts Hill staffers and lawmakers to votes on legislation. So far Henderson has raised almost $500,000 in funding for Cloakroom, from investors including Graham Holdings Company, Derik Pridmore and Adam Garner.
Although Cloakroom does not store any identifying information about its users, Henderson hopes he can tap into 2016 cash and make both Cloakroom and Capitol Bells relevant to campaigns and voters.
Hill staffers said they are excited to see how the app develops as it adds more users. Right now, they say the same handful of accounts are responsible for most of the posts.
“It’s still nascent,” one said. “I’m curious to see how this would work with hundreds of staffers posting.”