The secret of online success: don’t keep secrets

A piece looking at the success of social media groups involving secrets, first published on First Drafts, February 2010

Yesterday, a friend told me the story of last year’s summer internship competition at Saatchi & Saatchi. Eager young beavers had to start a Facebook group, and the one whose group got the most members won the coveted internship. Only problem: within two weeks, Bristol university graduate Tiffany Philippou’s brainchild, Secret London—devoted to sharing members’ inside knowledge of London’s more elusive delights—had won 182,010 members and promptly morphed into a startup.

Marvellous, the power of the web. What interests me, though, is why Secret London worked so well. For starters, it’s a self-evidently good idea. People love sharing inside information about bars, gigs, bands and locations on social networking platforms. That’s why yoof spends so much time online, up to its armpits in Tweets and tinyurls. But why do they love it quite so much—and what larger social purposes is it serving?

Think of yourself for a moment as a node: your web presence a pinprick connected to millions of others via everything you’ve said and done online. What is it that gives your particular online presence value—and status? It’s not your unerring ability to regurgitate received opinions, or type “lol” a dozen times. It’s the content you generate that’s unique to you: what you actually think, where you’ve actually been, the things that only you know. Largely, in fact, it’s real stuff that gives your virtual presence value: your take on real places, real actions, real people.

This sounds like an incredibly basic point—but it’s why anyone who obsessively talks about the “virtualisation” of life (and the life of yoof in particular) is missing half the point. Yes, many people may appear to live their entire social lives online. But, just as it’s other, real people that are the overwhelming focus of their interest, so the greatest conversational cachet lies in knowing the particulars of something real: the band, the gig, the bar, the hidden gem. The best phrase for describing this is “augmented reality,” and that’s where the future lies. The camera-phone is never far from the hand, the Twitter decks are on constant spin, but the person wielding them is very much out and about.

In a world where secrets and opinions are the most valuable of currencies, the pressure to divulge them—and dig them out—has never been greater. It’s a social minefield, a privacy nightmare, and much else besides. But it also makes me feel slightly sorry for Saatchi & Saatchi. You spend decades building a reputation as the agency that knows people’s deepest fears, desires and whims, and make a pretty penny for your trouble. Now, it turns out, these people are spending 90 per cent of their online time telling each other exactly what they want, like and know, for free. Forget advertising. Get yourself an intern, and start a Facebook group.