"I lied to you a few days ago. Telling you anonymously makes me feel better. Sorry."
That was the message I received yesterday from someone through Leak, a tool for making anonymous confessions. It may have made its sender feel better, but it made me feel anything but.
The email’s subject line simply read "From a friend, anonymously." Maybe it was that startup folks I talked with on Friday. Did they really raise so much funding? Or maybe it was a friend who attended my birthday party? Or one who didn’t—was she really out of town? Maybe a coworker was just playing a prank on me? Was it some sort of PR trick engineered by Leak itself?
By the end of the day, after pondering all of the ways I could have been deceived, I wondered if maybe it weren’t just everyone in my life who was lying to me. I wished that whomever sent me this confession had kept it to himself.
Leak’s creator, the facilitator of this budding paranoia, is a 25-year-old living in Paris named Laurent Desserrey. He says he wanted to create a "really positive and exciting tool."
A couple of friends helped Desserrey build Leak over a single weekend. It's simple. Users fill out a form with their recipient’s email address, their message, and whether they are a coworker, friend, friend-of-a-friend, family member, or "someone." The concept was partly inspired by Secret, an app that allows users to post anonymous messages to their friends and friends of friends and fits into a neat trend of apps that allow expression without attribution. Whisper, Yik Yak, and Wut are just a few others.
Anonymous emails are not a new idea by any means. But Leak has received the glossy website, tech press, and Twitter grapevine treatment that other websites for sending anonymous emails haven’t, and it’s gaining some traction. Desserrey says that about 10 people per minute, on average, are sending leaks from the site. He's actively seeking collaborators to bring more "ideas/talent/$."
So what’s the appeal?
"It’s sure that people can send negative leaks," Desserrey writes, "but that is really not what the product is about. It’s about saying the truth you’re ashamed to say."
The site also acknowledges, however, that it could be used for some very negative purposes. Named in the "don't" of its "dos and don’ts" section are threats, encouragements of self-harm, bullying, harassment, hate speech, pornography, and spam.
Even if the Internet only used Leak to spread rainbows and butterflies, it’s hard to see what could actually be accomplished by anonymous messages. The person who sent me a Leak shouldn’t feel better. They haven’t really confessed. Anyone who wants to know something they’re afraid to ask should probably find a tool where a response is possible. And if you want to be honest about something you think will have positive consequences, you'd also most likely want to put your name behind it.
On the other hand, as Maria Konnikova suggested in a memorable New Yorker post, anonymity has plenty of perks. While writing about online commenters, she says that anonymity has:
Been shown to encourage participation; by promoting a greater sense of community identity, users don’t have to worry about standing out individually. Anonymity can also boost a certain kind of creative thinking and lead to improvements in problem-solving. In a study that examined student learning, the psychologists Ina Blau and Avner Caspi found that, while face-to-face interactions tended to provide greater satisfaction, in anonymous settings participation and risk-taking flourished.
The most productive use case I can imagine for Leak would be telling someone that he’s being grossly underpaid or that he has soy sauce stains dripped on the front of his shirt. I'm sure there are more. But so far what I've seen with Leak is not "positive and exciting." It's good entertainment.
On the bottom of the Leak website, there’s a button to sign up for "the best leaks of the week, delivered every Monday in your inbox."
Someone else's destructive secrets? Now, that's something I'd actually want to read.