I’ve been a Quad resident for three years, so seeing people set up a table with a box of Insomnia Cookies on top is nothing new. A few weeks ago, schlepping back to my dorm after a long day of lectures and seminars, I passed one of these tables. But unlike most of the other times, this table had a crowd. It also had a large banner advertising what it was selling: Sidechat. No doubt you’ve heard of this app, which styles itself as an anonymous version of Reddit with Penn-specific content.
This isn’t really a column about Sidechat the app. After all, I’m a loyal Android user, which means there isn’t even an app for me to download on my app store. And compared to the other apps used by this campus, Sidechat doesn’t seem to have fully devolved into a toxic cesspool of ostracism, egoism, and general unpleasantness — yet. But what did catch my eye — and cause me to write this column — is the way Sidechat the business seems to have flooded campus overnight and found its way on so many of our phones. It didn’t do that through plain word of mouth, and the app itself doesn’t do anything new. Instead, Sidechat won campus via a massive blanket of cash that permeated not just the quad, not just Locust Walk, but even our own student organizations.
That first day in the quad, with the table laden with Insomnia, I asked the two Penn students manning the operation how they got involved. I was expecting them to say that they were part of the student team (invariably from Wharton) that developed the app. Instead, they told me, “We got an email that said they’d pay us money if we picked up cookies and worked the table.” While I couldn’t independently verify the existence of such an email, it was interesting. And mildly suspicious. I thought nothing more of the exchange.
Except, of course, I did. I brought it up in a conversation with some friends. “Sidechat?” they said. “We got a message about the app in our club Slack.” Intrigued, I asked for screenshots. There, in the main channel of a club Slack, complete with an “@channel,” was the following message: “HUGE announcement everyone. We’ve found an amazing source of funding for POLIS [Pi Lambda Sigma …] We have a referral link, and for every student that registers from this link, POLIS will receive $3, capped at $1,000.” Later down the message, club members are instructed to post the referral link “after 11am” in various group chats “for maximum reach.” A different message, also shared to club members, encourages them to sign up and table at various “high-traffic” areas on campus. They would get paid “$20/hr + bonuses.”
I reached out to the president of POLIS, Alisa Chokshi, to find out more. Chokshi, a College junior, explained that she first heard about Sidechat through her sorority. Someone there shared a message: “if you’re the president of a club and want to make $20 … for a quick phone call” you should get in contact with someone from Sidechat. Taking the opportunity, Chokshi spoke to someone at the app, who pitched joining Sidechat's Penn recruitment push as a way to get “funding for your club.” Agreeing to participate, Chokshi was given instructions on how to join and paid $20. She said she thought Sidechat was “a cool idea,” but “more importantly, we needed funding for our club.” POLIS isn’t funded by the Student Activities Council, so it relies on fundraisers and member dues for its events.
Now, roughly a month after those initial conversations, Chokshi characterizes her interaction with Sidechat as “honestly pretty bad.” She described Sidechat’s pitch to clubs as a way to get cash quickly, but said payment (via Venmo) wasn’t sent to the club until three to four weeks after participation. Despite it all, she says she would work with them again if given the chance for more money, unless the club received funding from Penn.
It’s at this point in the story where I draw a blank. Just about everything with Sidechat’s user recruitment plan feels wrong — a private company wooing underfunded groups with promises of quick payout to gain users, seemingly disappearing when payment was expected, paying a club via Venmo. But looking at each individual part of the plan, nothing seems particularly bizarre. One of the companies with which I have a credit card regularly urged me to refer people using a special link for a personal payout. Twenty dollars an hour to work a table is nearly three times the federal minimum wage, a good deal for a job that seems minimally demanding. But taken as a whole and put in the context of Penn, it’s a bit strange.
Most student organizations receive their funding from the SAC, which distributes from a $1.25 million pot. Even if a student organization isn’t SAC-funded, why should a place as wealthy as Penn require student organizations to turn to startup apps for their funding?
Sidechat doesn’t appear to be a benevolent app, and indications are they’ve taken this recruitment strategy to Cornell, Yale, and Harvard. It wouldn’t be surprising if other colleges are now or will soon also be part of similar marketing pushes. But absent a clear business plan or statement from Sidechat — which did not respond to a request for comment — we have to wonder why a startup app, which collects email addresses from its many users and is front and center for Penn’s venting, needed to get on our phones so badly and was willing to shell out large amounts of cash to do it.
ALFREDO PRATICÒ is a College senior studying American history from Philadelphia. He was previously opinion editor for the 137th board. His email is email@example.com.