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Predicting the Next Social Media Hit

We are wired for gossip, and it's inevitable that products will arise to manipulate that basic impulse.

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We all want to know what the next big thing in social will be, and the question on a lot of our minds is — will it be Secret?

The reason Secret has become such a hot topic is not just because it’s a trendy new app that has the tech elite hooked.

Secret seems to have unlocked an entirely new category of social.

But it’s not what you think.

People are calling this new category “anonymity,” just like they called the category that Snapchat unlocked “ephemerality.” But I think these terms approach the conversation around social in the wrong way.

To understand what the future of social will be, we have to look to our past. Because our past — our evolutionary past in particular — is the driving force behind all social trends.

Facebook and Snapchat and WhatsApp may be changing our social behavior — the way in which we socialize — but they have not changed the underlying social impulses, or why we choose to engage in those behaviors in the first place.

On the contrary, these products have reached such massive scale precisely because they tap into our most fundamental social impulses.

That’s obvious, right?

So why do we talk about social in terms of “anonymity” and “ephemerality” and “hyperlocal” and “real-time”? These are tech terms, not social terms, and they do little to elucidate the future of our social behavior.

What we should be discussing, instead, are the evolutionary drivers of human socialization, and the gaping holes that are being created in our social lives as we spend an increasingly greater proportion of them in the virtual world.

Those gaping holes are where the answers lie to “what’s the next big thing in social?”

Because it’s less likely that millions of years of evolution will suddenly undo themselves (no matter how socially stilted you may think we’re becoming), and much more likely that some clever entrepreneur will come up with an app that addresses (or manipulates) yet another one of our many social desires that remain unfulfilled in the virtual realm.

Did you hear?

Anonymity is not what makes Secret compelling.

Anonymity serves no social function, in and of itself. But it is a useful tool in the virtual realm, because it enables gossip. And gossip serves an important social function.

Gossip is as old as language itself (and some believe it may have even been the driving force behind it). The purpose of gossip was to build alliances and strengthen bonds, allowing us to maintain larger social groups.

When we gossip face-to-face, we tell some juicy piece of news (often about a third party) to another person, in confidence. Although our friend can always turn around and rat us out to the third party, we are protected by plausible deniability, because the secret is being exchanged verbally. There is no proof that we said what we said. Our friend is also protected when she rats us out, because she can deny having done so. But each time the news is passed along, an alliance is strengthened. And so the news spreads.

In the virtual world, a gossipy message you send to a friend privately can always be forwarded with your name attached to it. This increases the cost of passing along the news, thus curbing the spread of gossip.

Enter anonymity.

But anonymity alone is not enough. Secret facilitates gossip in a way that none of the other major types of social apps can, because it combines anonymity with social proof and a public feed.

For gossip to be enabled, the following must be true:

    • 1. It must be easily spreadable.
    • 2. It must be transmitted in confidence from one person to the next.
    • 3. It must facilitate discussion about a third party.

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter don’t allow for both No. 1 and No. 2 together. Things that are posted privately are not easily spreadable, and vice versa. Snapchat makes it difficult to talk about a third party, because the conversation is image-based. WhatsApp, and text messengers in general, are not designed for the viral spread of information.

Secret, on the other hand, is a perfect mix of all three factors, and this is why it — and other apps of its kind — are uniquely positioned to fill the gossip gap.

The question of ethics

Viewing Secret within this evolutionary framework also informs the ethics debate that flared up recently around “anonymish” apps.

We are wired for gossip, and it is inevitable that products will arise to manipulate that basic impulse. But is Secret really the best way — or as Marc Andreessen put it, most “legitimate and worthy” way — to address that need?

Gossip is not always pleasant in the real world, either (remember middle school?), but there is no question that anonymity breeds a special type of hatefulness. In the physical world, there is a benefit to shit-talking, but there is also a cost. If the person finds out that you said something nasty about them, you lose your alliance with them. This imposes a natural check on the level of hatred that gets spread around.

When gossip can be trumpeted to your entire network anonymously, however, shit-talking suddenly becomes cost-free. Although there is no longer a social reward for gossiping (because you can’t build alliances anonymously), the reward centers in our brains still fire every time we write a clever little Secret and watch the commenters go nuts — and so the trolling is unleashed. Like giving candy to a baby.

By recognizing the evolutionary drivers behind these behaviors, the creators of such apps might be better able to anticipate the ways in which users will respond, and incorporate appropriate mechanisms to keep hatefulness in check. In doing so, they might give the product a better chance of serving a real social function, and becoming a lasting fixture in our virtual lives.

The Wild West

This same framework can be applied to all major social apps, and can be used, I believe, to identify opportunities for the next big thing.

Snapchat arose not because we had a burning desire for “ephemerality,” but from our need for social bonding. Ephemerality, combined with image-based messaging, enabled more authentic and emotive communication than what was previously possible virtually.

Facebook — and most of the first-generation social networks — arose from our drive for status display. Instagram represented the evolution of how we express that particular social desire in the virtual realm. Status-display apps will always exist in one form or another. WhatsApp and Snapchat can never fully replace that need.

Technology does not drive social behavior. Our genes drive social behavior. Technology enables and shapes that behavior.

As technology progresses, the ways in which we — as inventors — can address our collective social desires will continue to flower and grow in beautiful and unexpected (and at times disturbing) ways.

The question to answer, for anyone who might hope to address those desires, is: Where are the gaps?

Prerna Gupta is a serial entrepreneur, investor and author, currently working on a stealth project combining science fiction and education. She was previously chief product officer at Smule, where she now serves as a board advisor. She is also an LP and resident mentor at 500 Startups. Reach her @prernagupta.

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