Secret and why the first users of a social app should not be (male) thirty-somethings who work in tech

Tech Crowd

Secret, an anonymous gossip app that once was considered quite a big deal within the U.S tech community, is closing down due to lack of user activity, as announced some days ago by its founder.

I was never a fan of Secret and I did not like how heavily it was pushed by some American tech outlets. As I documented here, TechCrunch’s Secret coverage was ridiculously excessive considering the comparatively tiny group of users that was devoted to the service.

The exaggerated hype and the problematic ethics behind a service that lets anybody anonymously say anything about others aside, I am not very surprised about the end of Secret. Despite the heavy press and the short but intense hysteria about Secret within tech circles, I did not find it likely that Secret would be able to significantly increase its reach beyond industry geeks. While this is always easy to say in hindsight, I have a mental rule of thumb when judging the potential of a social app, which guided my evaluation:

A communication service which heavily relies on network effects and social networking dynamics (which applied even to Secret, despite the anonymous character) must find an initial core user group other than the predominantly male thirty-somethings that work in tech.

The existence of enthusiasm among members of the tech crowd does say much less about the actual real-world appeal of an app than if a service after its launch catches on within other groups. Why? Because these other groups solely become active users of apps and platforms if they find value for themselves. The members of the tech community however are driven by motives that are irrelevant for the average user, such as a general or profession-related curiosity about everything new, the search for the “next big thing” to write about, the personal branding effort as a well-informed early adopter, or financial interests.

If you do not believe me, think about consumer social networking platforms and apps that got highly successful but that initially grew within a distinct “non-tech” subset of users: Facebook (college students), Pinterest (middle-aged women), Tumblr (teens/online subcultures), Snapchat (teens), WhatsApp and other leading messengers (anyone EXCEPT silicon valley), Tinder (college students), Instagram (yes, it got some early coverage on tech blogs, but its early user group was heterogeneous and quite mixed nevertheless). Exactly, this is pretty much everyone.

As for every rule, there are exceptions. In this case, I see one and a half exceptions. Twitter had its initial big moment at the SXSW conference in 2007 and grew from there. Even though it struggles with achieving the kind of ubiquitous reach into all corners of the Internet mainstream, it has become a major player. Foursquare’s early users also mainly had ties into the digital sector. The company has been trying for years to break into the mainstream, and it is still stuck somewhere half way. That’s why I count it as half exception.

The overall pattern is clear though and it suggests that consumer startups that build apps around the idea of connecting people in some way or another for the purpose of personal communication (and this is the only type of app I am talking about) should from day one focus on gaining organic traction outside of the tech community. It is unclear whether the issue is the distraction to the company strategy that comes with a sudden and overwhelming industry hype (“Ok let’s not spend our time on university campuses but mingle with the SF tech elite instead”), or whether a concept of an app that appeals to (predominantly) male thirty-somethings with ties to the tech community – after all a rather small and non-representative niche – indicates a fundamental failure to satisfy “regular” user’s needs. The list of social apps that reached a temporary fame and were covered with dozens of high-profile write-ups on tech blogs without continuing on a growth path afterwards is long. Remember Pownce, Friendfeed, GroupMe, Path, Oink (which I loved by the way, but I am a thirty-something working in tech), Amen, diaspora, App.net, Highlight, Gowalla, Banjo, FrontBack… and Meerkat?

The lesson is clear:  At least as users, the usual suspects from the industry are pretty bad at putting their eggs into the right basket (I’m guilty as charged, too) when it comes to social networks. Thus new social apps should try hard to reach network effects and the tipping point elsewhere first. Because getting tech people to like a social networking app does not say anything about its real potential. But it creates the destructive illusion of being on the right track.

(Photo: Flickr/Tech Cocktail, CC BY-SA 2.0)

2 comments

  1. point on rule of thumb, nice article!

    another app where this comes to mind is: Path

    the industry buzz a few years ago was extreme:
    – first mobile social network
    – friend list limitation of 50 friends
    – more private
    – more intimate
    – the next facebook

    tech nerds in silicon valley loved it, but it suffered in the same way as secret and never really took off.

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