clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Never Forget That 16-Year-Old Girls Run the Internet

Every social app will confront this fact.

You may have created a social startup that finds favor with the tech blogs and is so hot that it overtakes the 20-to-40-year-old social/tech hipsters. But never, ever forget this cardinal rule: 16-year-old girls run the Internet.

What does that mean? Imagine that you’re in your apartment, scrolling through the latest confession/messaging/social app, and it’s full of woes of teenage heartbreak. You realize that this app doesn’t speak to you. Your reaction: Next app, please!

Every social app will confront this problem, and if you haven’t thought through how you’re going to deal with this moment, you’re headed for the big fat F (as in “Fad”).

Two of the hottest social network apps right now are Secret and Whisper. These social interest networks share the category with platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest, but the latter three allow you to follow pinboards, people and companies to help improve the signal-to-noise. Secret and Whisper are fascinating additions to the category because they pronounce anonymity as a core feature due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter being posted.

Whisper and Secret are both scaling very quickly. Are they part of a fad that’s going to fade? Or can we count on one of these as the perfect outlet to dump our feelings and thoughts on society?

First of all, fist bumps. Whisper is the first mover (after, of course, curated channels such as Postsecret, Livejournal Secret, deviantART Secret, and the like), and those guys have my respect big-time for pioneering a global platform where people can share their emotions openly. They’re helping countless people to reflect, connect and find clarity on things weighing them down. Secret brings thunder to the concept by allowing you to see Secrets from friends and friends of friends. Watching these two beautifully designed apps is like watching two new bands going head to head. I’m a fan of both.

But if they want to last as long as the Beatles, they should consider making some strategic moves. It’s not too late for either, although things seem to be getting really problematic for Whisper. It has been around longer, it’s scaled to bigger numbers than the younger Secret and Whisper hasn’t done much to inject its participants with the dabble of culture they need to shape the networks. Secret kind of has.

Building a social interest network that is not a fad requires:

Developing cultural pillars

They don’t need to be as aggressive about it as we are at deviantART, where we expect you to read a long-form etiquette policy and will suspend your account or ban you if you violate it.

At a minimum, both Whisper and Secret need to give you some sense of their values, purpose statement and expectations to help shape the intent of the network. Not everyone listens, but these guidelines and expectations have a powerful effect on networks, especially early in the user experience of the service.

While these types of statements can slow an app’s virality, you get longer-term membership because you’re actually focusing your members a bit more on contributing value over lulz. Think of culture as a big part of your content strategy.

Relying on your contacts

Scanning contacts freaks people out a little, but the genius of scanning your contacts is that it sets a cultural tone. I think the folks at Secret did this because it’s the tech-smart option. You get better data to forge your collaborative filters.

But I’d bet that the cultural implications were accidental, as culture isn’t enough of a topic in tech. In fact, it’s hardly a topic at all, even though it’s the effing secret to longevity for social interest networks and communities.

Still, because Secret scans contacts, users of Secret take it more seriously than Whisper. You have a mental picture of the audience you’re writing to, and it’s people like your friends. With Whisper, you get the distinct feeling that you’re revealing your innermost shenanigans to a random crowd of strangers from all age groups and interests.

This is valuable as a conceptual notion, but once you’re experiencing this community for an extended time, it may feel less valuable than expressing yourself to a group of like-minded anonymous peers. This is precisely the experience Secret is increasingly positioned to deliver on, that is getting more and more difficult for Whisper to capture.

Develop a solid collaborative filter

A collaborative filter in the main feeds will connect users with content that’s more relevant to them based on what “Whispered Secrets” they “Like.” Unfortunately for Whisper, all they have to go on is “Like” data for this, because they don’t know who their users are, where they’re from or what they like.

Secret is developing a substantial edge here, since they’ve already set a precedent that they’re going to ask for personal data like contacts. Expect them to ask more questions soon. It’s the only path toward a killer browsing experience.

What kinds of questions? At a minimum, how old you are, what types of people you’re interested in hearing secrets from and some negative data about what you don’t like. Once they ask you these things, they need to be rocking on getting that data integrated into your browsing experience so you can get some signal back from the noise that’s accumulating.

The clock is ticking. Those 16-year-old girls are coming at you like spider monkeys, and everyone else is going to feel left out.

Because, at the heart of this social interest are people who want to read whispered secrets from people who could just as easily be them. Get even more non-identifiable data from your members, and leverage this strength in collaborative filtering to win. You may even want to heavily advertise how you’re protecting your members’ data.

Still, no system is going to be infallible. Consciously or subconsciously, you know all your friends are going to see your innermost secrets when the app gets outed by Anonymous wannabes on Reddit or legit hacktivists on 4chan.

Angelo Sotira is the co-founder and CEO of deviantART, the largest online social community for artists and art enthusiasts, allowing people to connect through the creation and sharing of art. Reach him @asotira.

This article originally appeared on