Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Post-Modern Secrets

It's been a while since I've posted anything here at Peasant Muse, so why not break the silence by discussing the new kid on the social media block- Secret.

I discovered Secret via Dan Frommer's 'SplatF' and decided that if it was worth his time to mention it, it was worth my time to at least check it out. What's funny is that I tried to download the app myself by searching for 'Secret' on the App Store. That gave me returns like this:

Turns out you have to search for 'Secret - Speak Freely' in order to find the app, making efforts to download this new attempt at freeing yourself from the constraints of traditional social media an ironic proposition from the start- you have to know the secret of how to download Secret.

The premise of Secret is this: you reach into your soul and uncover a hidden truth or pithy pearl of wisdom and reveal it, anonymously, to your other friends who also use Secret. If enough of these other Secret friends (more like Secret Contacts, since that list is what the app asks to consult on your first use) 'love' your shared secret (expressed by tapping a heart icon), then that secret will begin to permeate the screens of your friend's friends (contact's contacts) who also use the app. There is also some sort of 'magic sauce' involved (algorithms stewed in 21 secret herbs and spices) for determining the exposure of any given secret revealed.

I want to share a few thoughts about Secret, and what I think it means in the larger trend that is social media evolution.

- Anonymity, that 'warm blanket' as Max would say, is nothing new for social media, but finding a way to make anonymity stable enough- or, more properly, finding a stable way to channel the latent forces behind anonymity- is something Secret is trying to do. Social media is fast moving out of what I will call its 'Classicist' era, best characterized by static pages broken up into discrete identity fields (my timeline, my photos, my messages). Twitter was an early force that signaled the waining influence of Classicist thinking, despite the borrowings from Classical elements of form and design, and its new conception of asynchronous following and correlating firehose-like delivery of content suggested a new way for social media to grow.

Instagram became the exemplar of what I will call the 'Modern' era of social media that Twitter presaged, a definable shift from the previous period made possible due to mass adoption of smartphone technology. It demonstrated that a narrow focus- in this case, photography- could generate a level of engagement on par with more traditional, 'Classical' social media platforms.

Snapchat, in my opinion, heralded another shift in social media. To keep the metaphor going, I would call the ephemerality Snapchat offers a clear indicator signaling the emergence of a 'Post-Modern' era. We know what a big network (Facebook) looks like and we know what a niche network (Instagram) looks like; the pressing question, at least to me, now lies in exploring the aesthetics of our social media use. Ephemerality is one such aesthetic turn. Anonymity, or at least the sort of channeled anonymity offered by Secret, is another.

(I should mention that my use of the 'classical/modern/post-modern' metaphor is intentional. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the crisis of identity encountered at both the emergence of the modern in Western society, roughly 18th-20th centuries, and the emergence of the post-modern, roughly the late to early 20th-21st centuries, bears a striking resemblance to the crisis of identity associated with social media use in the past decade. These labels might not be appropriate given the short and dynamic timescale involved, but their loose meaning here more than suits my rhetorical need.)

- That being said, the anonymity of the sort pedaled by Secret seems to me to be nothing more than a veil. When you see a secret that originated from someone in your contacts list, you can't help but engage in a modern day version of 'Guess Who?'. Remember the search term I had to use to find 'Secret' in the App Store? 'Secret- Speak Freely'? The directed aesthetics of the app suggest you can 'speak freely' through use of anonymity, yet if the only people who see your 'secrets' are your contacts there are questions of just how warm a blanket Secret's anonymity provides.

Photo via Stian Eikland

Again, it is an issue of the aesthetic design. You could post something truly secret, something no one could possibly know, but unless it is something that can generate 'love' (clicks) that 'secret' is going nowhere. I suppose part of the 'magic sauce' mentioned above helps pluck announced secrets from obscurity and promotes them to the mainstream, but then that brings up essential questions related to the sort of 'secrets' the 'magic sauce' favors.  In fancy terms, knowledge of how the 'magic sauce' works would constitute an evaluation on the epistemic hierarchy Secret uses to categorize a 'secret'. It would be an insight into the aesthetic judgement 'Secret' renders on secrets.

But I digress- my main point here is that there is, to a point, an imbedded game involved with Secret's anonymity. You want to post revealing things, or maybe just something fun, but you want to do so in a manner that clues your immediate readers in on your true identity. It is an identity puzzle you place before others. The fun of solving the puzzle- or trying to solve it- can then be expressed by clicking the 'love' heart. 

You could avoid this game and post something truly cryptic, something no knows about you. Yet, again, the aesthetic design of 'Secret' will render its judgment. If it doesn't generate reaction among your contacts via clicking of hearts, the shared secret goes nowhere and it is almost as if it were never uttered at all. I could definitely see some cathartic use for Secret, but something tells me the designers of the app don't want this to become a *heavy* atmosphere. They want it to be light and fun and the aesthetic expression of anonymity Secret allows reinforces this ideal.

An actual secret from one of my contacts.

Keep in mind what I said above- the real challenge Secret faces is making the anonymous experience engaging and, above all, stable.

- Last observation: since I'm talking about aesthetics, I think it is interesting to contrast Secret's anonymity experience with that provided by Snapchat's ephemerality. Snapchat gives you an image, a moment, and then you have fading, unreliable memories of that image. Secret gives you an ongoing unreliable fragment, a clue, and asks you to reconstruct the image of the original sender. With Snapchat, images lead to words as you try to describe the moment. With Secret, words lead to images as you try to uncover the blanket of anonymity.