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Leak, Secret, and Whisper: the rise of stealth sharing

A young man at a LAN party
A young man at a LAN party
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Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.
This week, the internet was introduced to Leak, a service that allows you to send anonymous messages to anyone that you want, provided you know their email address.

"I think you're so sexy, even if you're fat," is apparently the kind of message you're supposed to send to people anonymously (it's one of the examples on the site). Compliments, secret admirer notes, dark confessions — Leak is the place for them.

"Leak lets you share the truth you're ashamed to say," Laurent Desserey, the creator of Leak, told me. "You can't do that on Facebook or Twitter."

Leak isn't the only site like this. It's just the latest, hopping on a trail paved by apps like Secret and Whisper, which allow users to send confessions and gossip into the ether without attaching their names to them (Leak tracks IP addresses because of potential legal infractions and users abusing the service).

According to Desserrey's post on Medium, 10 Leaks are sent every minute. "This is cool, because it's just the beginning. The current version of Leak is a tiny version of what could be Leak. There's way more to come," Desserrey wrote.

Before Dessrrey's quest for world domination comes to fruition, it might be a good time to figure out how we got to this point of sending anonymous notes to one another, and what makes them so much better than what we usually see on our over-saturated social media feeds.

It might be a sign that we're finally learning

"We have a generation of young people who are told: "Don't put it on Facebook.'" Dr. Joel Penney, a professor in the communications department at Montclair State University told me. "That's part of the culture now, and people are growing up with that sense."

Penney specializes in new media, political communication, and consumer culture. He explains that part of the draw to sites like Leak and Whisper is the promise of not having to deal with the repercussions that usually accompany sharing on social media sites.

Those repercussions usually involve getting fired or resigning from a job. From Anthony Weiner to Justine "#HasJustineLandedYet" Sacco, our news cycles are peppered with people "sharing" on social media and finding out that isn't the best idea. Just this month alone:
  • Adam Richman, a man who made a career accepting food-eating challenges that often have a no-vomit clause, had his Travel Channel show suspended after getting into an Instagram fight and telling someone to commit suicide
  • Anthony Cumia, one half of the popular Opie and Anthony Show, was fired for spewing a wildly racist tirade against a black woman on Twitter
  • Benny Johnson, a former editor at Buzzfeed, went on a tweet spree alleging that someone plagiarized his work. This tipped off two anonymous twitter users who started looking into his work, and eventually uncovered Johnson's own plagiarism.
Seeing those people get lit up and lose their jobs over their social media behavior makes Secret, Whisper, and Leak more appealing.

Anonymity v. Privacy

When people start talking about these apps, there's a tendency to stray into conversations surrounding privacy and anonymity. It's tempting to think of terms like anonymity and privacy as one begetting the other. But when it comes to Leak and its brethren, Penney told me the two terms are actually not as connected as they seem.

"It's not about privacy. These sites are about being public in a surveillance society, " Penney said, explaining that if it the issue were really about privacy, these secrets would be kept offline. "They don't want to have to have to answer for their own [actions]. It's an interesting kind of way of being public."

Even though we're now being told that our digital footprints never go away, we've also been conditioned to be very public and share everything. More recently, Twitter or Facebook have been our avenues to "share" everything and drop tidbits of our lives into the faceless void of the Internet.  But it didn't start there. Before that, we had reality shows like The Real World, which helped warm us up to the normalcy of completely not normal things like confessionals. And before The Real World, there were talk shows where celebrities were encouraged to go off the cuff.

And there's also an appetite to watch all of this stuff too.

Share fatigue

In academia, the term for all this faceless sharing is the "online disinhibition effect." It means that humans have a tendency to say things online, or in text messages that they wouldn't tell another human face to face. The effect explains Facebook status updates and tweets.

And it could also explain why we're a little sick of those avenues too. With every update or tweet, we're getting used to people's everyday disinhibitions ("Wow, John Slattery is cute")  and perhaps need something more salacious.

When talking about Leak, Desserrey likes to use the term "ashamed." If Leak is for everything you're too ashamed to say, Facebook and to some extent Twitter is for everything you're too proud to let go of without telling everyone it's yours.

"We definitely have a sense of fatigue with/for Facebook," Desserrey told me.

And there's also a sense that Facebook and Twitter have become more about maintaining a persona, which comes back to the warning that everything you post online will come back to haunt you. Celebrity accounts are the most egregious examples of this.

"Maybe these anonymous messages might offer an authenticity that might be lacking," Penney explained. "Maybe people are sick of that kind of that managed image that's so scrubbed and kind of sanitized."

The differences between Leak, Whisper and Secret

What makes it different: Leak allows you to send anonymous emails to any person, provided you know their address. Unlike Whisper and Secret, only the sender and addressee see the message.

What makes it different: Secret allows you to share a secret anonymously and read anonymous secrets. Secret has a feature where you can share your messages with people you know and are in your social media networks.

What makes it different: Whisper allows you to share a secret/story/gossip anonymously and read anonymous secrets/stories/gossip. Whisper's messages are open to everyone who wants to see them.