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Why Anonymous Messaging Services Are Full of Bitching and Flirting

Leak, a new anonymous messaging service, is more about being shy than actual leaks.

The latest tool for people desperate to share their views without sharing that they've shared them, Leak is a site that lets you send anonymous emails to anyone, signed only "a friend," "a colleague," or just "someone." 

While it follows in the wake of a slew of popular anonymous messaging apps, Leak differs from the likes of Whisper and Secret by allowing you to send an anonymous message directly to someone's inbox, rather than broadcasting it to all users.

I sent myself a supposedly secret email to see how it works, and it's pretty simple; all you need is the email address of the recipient. However, as The Mary Sue foresaw, there's one glitch in the process: Your email client will probably think it's junk, as mine did.

While "leak," in the world of online anonymity, might usually bring to mind serious disclosures—whistleblowing, unnamed sources, WikiLeaks—it's obvious that the site's intended more for fun. Like Secret, Whisper and even PostSecret before it, it's very quickly turned into a bit of a bitch fest-slash-seedy flirting tool.

This isn't surprising, according to Ulf-Dietrich Reips, a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany who has written a lot on internet psychology. "It's because that's what many people like to do, and of course if you're talking about other people secretly, about rumours and so on, it's absolutely essential you're not identified," he said. "That's why people are seeking these anonymous services."

In fact, he said, anonymity is one of the main attractions of communicating online—"although since the NSA scandal, many people know that it's sometimes not really anonymous," he said.

In the About section of the Leak site, French creators Laurent Desserrey and Sébastian Thiriet make it clear that there's anonymous and then there's anonymous. They make it clear that Leak is for mouthing off about your friends and covertly coming on to your coworkers, not sharing state secrets.

As they write, "Nothing on the internet is really anonymous. If you do something that you really shouldn't, there are probably going to be ways and means of finding you." Leak is open about keeping a link between the messages you send and your IP address, and says it'll only reveal it "in the very rare occasion of legal matters."

It also doesn't pretend to be at all private—because remember, anonymity and privacy are not the same thing. Leak reserves the right to use your message, and there are already a bunch posted on the service's website, along with a weekly mailer of the best. 

The picks at the moment are mainly confessions along the lines of "I fancy you," with a couple rather tame put-downs, like "I am just hanging out with you because you know a lot of people. That's it." (Seriously, why even admit to that? It only makes you look bad, not anyone else.)

Image: Leak

Slightly more worryingly, I noticed in the site's terms that submitting a post grants Leak the "the license rights to … publish your name in connection with your Submission." I've reached out to clarify exactly what that means.

Of course, there's an obvious potential for misuse of the program, and the Leak guidelines have a lot more don'ts than dos, many of which just seem to recognise how many ways things could go wrong. No porn, no bullying, no threats, no hate speech, no spam, no sharing self-harm, no posting private information. It's not all harmless fun, especially when you have to include clauses to explicitly tell people not to "organize acts of violence or recruit for or support organizations with a record of violent criminal or terrorist activity with Leak."

Reips said that online communication generally differs from its IRL equivalent because of a lack of signals from the person you're talking to. 

"If you talk in real life it would often be not possible to go further with content because the other person signals you by their face and the tone of their voice, maybe, that this wouldn't be appropriate to talk about. But these cues are lacking in online conversations, in particular those only using the text channel," he explained. "And that explains how we get phenomena like flaming and going across certain borders online."

As for misuse, he pointed out that there's usually a cycle with these services, where they're created, then there's abuse, and then further steps are taken to combat that. It's worth noting that Leak is very new, and the organisers claimed in a blog post today to have put it together in just a weekend.

The creators say that over ten Leaks are now being sent each minute; as with so many other apps, there's clearly an initial buzz around its launch. But in the end, I can't help but question whether there's actually any real value to the service. Surely the main inclinations people have with these services—to bitch and to flirt—are better de-anonymised? After all, what's the point in telling someone you've got a thing for them if they don't know who you are? 

It seems to me that often using a service like Link is like telling your friend to tell their friend that you like them, or sending a not-so-subtly codenamed Valentine. In the end, you actually want the person to connect the dots. Indeed, it seems the Leak team support this not-so-anonymous-really behaviour too:

But Reips suggested that anonymous online messages might have their place. "Flirting and then getting to know someone more closely is a dynamic process, a step-by-step process," he said, suggesting that anonymous services could be appropriate for the initial "checking out" phase of a relationship. "If it gets more serious and you want to have more contact, then people switch to different modes."

Ultimately, if you really want to make the moves on someone, or actually make a complaint to your boss, Leak probably isn't the place to do it.