Shhhh, don't tell anybody anything (even though I just posted this secret online for anyone to see).
It has been brewing for some time, and it's a difficult trend for businesses not to understand and embrace. As much as our social lives are now made public in everything from 140-characters of text on Twitter to long-form videos that we post of ourselves on YouTube, there is a growing mass audience (and developers behind them) that are creating an entirely new (and private) layers to social media. And, if all goes according to their plan, it could very well be the proverbial needle to pop the balloon of how brands have attempted to market to consumers using modern technology.
What's the hottest thing happening right now?
It's Snapchat, of course. Isn't it? Lauded by the younger generation because they can send each other photographs/mini videos via smartphones and tablets that are incinerated once viewed (leaving no trace for parents, etc...). The app has become so formidable, that Facebook offered to buy them late last year for a reported $3 billion, which Snapchat turned down. Turning down $3 billion dollars buys a lot of attention and street cred. The private online social network continues to grow, as brands like McDonald's, Taco Bell, Acura and others have been jumping on board to figure out if Snapchat's community of 30 million-plus users (and growing) cares to get this type of micro-disposable content from brands. Maybe, it's not Snapchat that is the hottest thing anymore. One could argue that the hottest thing happening right now, is the fact that Facebook bounced back from this rejection and managed to acquire the cross-platform mobile messaging platform WhatsApp for an astonishing $19 billion two weeks ago. With close to 500 million users and growing, WhatsApp is, in its purest form, BlackBerry Messenger (which, of course, is now available for Android and Apple users as well) that works on any mobile device and any mobile carrier. In fact, the deal was so massive that it completely over-shadowed the fact that a similar messaging platform, Viber, was also recently acquired for $900 million by Rakuten (a Japanese online commerce platform).
Think about it: private pictures, videos, messages and more. That doesn't sound very social, does it?
While companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter monopolize the growing areas of online social networking, what we're beginning to see is continued growth and interest in private online social networking. The types of content, conversation and sharing that is done outside of the public limelight. Sometimes anonymously. Sometimes between two friends. It just doesn't feel like the place that brands can insert themselves to monetize a growing user base, does it?
I have a secret to tell.
While they have not been acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars (yet), the San Francisco based startup Secret (that was founded by two former Google and Square employees) is getting tons of attention, followers and fans. In short, you can write anything that's on your mind, add photos or colors to the background and customize this content while being able to share it - free of judgment - and without attaching any of your personal information or profile to it. It feels like a more modern, mobile and more social version of Post Secret (where individuals physically mail their anonymous secrets on the back of a postcard to a group that then scans and shares the most creative ones online). While Secret isn't the first or only app like this, it is currently getting the lion's share of media and consumer attention. Do you really want brands to share secrets with you? Does that even make sense? Secret follows in a long line of increasingly popular platforms that are moving towards more private, restricted and personal interactions. Path (which launched back in 2010) seemed like a more mobile version of Facebook with one major distinction:Path only allowed a maximum of 150 connections (which followed Dunbar's number theory that human beings can only maintain a total of 150 true relationships). Small stuff, right?
What matters most to you: Public life? Professional life? Social life? Personal life?
What we're now seeing is motion away from all of this publicness that we have been experiencing at the hands of social media for the past decade, or we're simply seeing the mass development of a completely different type of private online social networking. In fact, if you look at where the venture capital dollars and user growth is currently happening, we could well arrive at a juncture which finds consumers much less interested in the public chest beating of their semi-consequential day-to-day accomplishments on social media, and a much more focused desire to use technology as a communications platform to add more personal meaning. Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp could substantiate this (why wouldn't they want to own both the public and private online social networks of consumers?). So, while Ellen may have broken Twitter with her a-list selfie stunt from the Oscar's, we may be at the nascent stages of seeing a brand new type of social media play that is small, intimate and, seemingly, impermeable to brands, advertisers and media companies. A place where twerking could well find it's perfect home... behind closed doors and not out in public.
Are private online social networks the future of social media? More interesting will be how brands will react and engage with this new reality.
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here: