Anonymous social-networking isn’t a brand-new concept, of course. In fact, anonymity has been a hallmark of digital life since the very dawn of the Internet, when bloggers, listserv members and forum denizens could expect to post for years without coming out from behind their handle. But in the past several years, as anonymity has faded from the mainstream social experience — replaced, in many cases, by the all-seeing, identity-baring eye of Facebook — a new wave of anonymous apps and social services seem to be enjoying a bit of a heyday.
Secret was recently valued at over $100 million. Whisper peddles an astounding six billion secrets each month. And now we have Leak, the site that encourages you to “just say it” — regardless of whether “it” is uplifting, confessional, shocking, rude, reckless, banned by conventional social norms … or something else entirely.
In many ways, Leak is more than just another anonymous app — it’s both an evolution of the movement and an extreme use case for online anonymity. Unlike Whisper and Secret, where messages are broadcast to a wide audience, or Ask.fm, where users have to sign up to get questions, Leak allows users to send personal messages directly to individuals who have not chosen to receive them. The potential is huge — as is the risk of abuse and harassment.
On one hand, there’s the unfortunate (and well-documented) reality that people are often pretty dreadful whenever we free them from the strictures of a name. Research suggests people behave less ethically and less responsibly when they know their identities are hidden. It’s that very phenomenon that has gotten sites like Ask.fm in hot water with advertisers, parents and children’s advocacy groups, who say the site is a breeding ground for cyberbullies and the cause of several teen suicides.
On the other hand, research — and the experience of sites like Whisper and Secret — has also suggested that anonymity can free people from inhibitions in a powerful (and socially constructive!) way. Secret, for instance, is curating a fascinating collection of anonymous observations from Israelis about Gaza, and Whisper has published unusual glimpses into the lives of deployed soldiers, serial plagiarists and “LGBT youths with unsupportive parents.” Perhaps more important, in the “age of NSA snooping and data collection,” anonymous apps free people from the unbearable weight of their digital footprint — the heavy fact that nothing is private and everything can be tracked.
Notably, Leaks can also be tracked: As the site’s creators warn in a note to users, “nothing on the internet is really anonymous,” and your IP address could be unearthed in the event of a lawsuit or police investigation. But the people behind Leak seem to think all that unpleasantness won’t be necessary. In their eyes, anonymity’s a force for good — not evil.
“We believe in providing a tool to connect with people on a more candid and personal level,” they write on a doe-eyed Dos-and-Don’ts page. “It’s good to say everything you want. It’s always a good time.”
We’ll have to see if their beliefs change once someone uses Leak to send a death threat or a Nigerian e-mail scam or some other unsavory bit of material.