In the last decade, the Web has been about a move to openness. No longer do we hide like mewling quim behind AOL screen names (Peter’s was Aragon88 which is pretty much the quintessential AOL handle). Now, we use our real names when we troll people on Facebook; our real photos are displayed next to our inane YouTube comments; our Twitter feeds are open and accessible to the world so everyone can know of our love for “Sleepy Hollow.” The Internet is open and transparent, with all our thoughts shared with everyone we have ever met.

Well, at least it was. Increasingly, we’re seeing a shift away from the kind of mass broadcast social media that has dominated for so long toward a smaller, more intimate social experience. For example:

  • About 9% of cell phone owners use Snapchat. It’s especially popular among young people: a recent survey found that 26% of cell phone owners aged 18-29 use Snapchat. No data was gathered for those under 18, but I suspect it would be considerably higher. Unlike with Facebook or Instagram, there is no “news feed” on Snapchat. It’s more an instant messaging service, where people can send pictures (often captioned or embellished with doodles) and videos to a select group of people, as small as just one person to one person. After being viewed, each image self destructs, giving a feeling of anonymity, even if the images can be screenshotted.
  • Even mainstream social networks which thrive on broadcasting messages far and wide are rolling out options to make sharing more private. Recently, both Instagram and Twitter made it possible to share images through private messaging, to just one other person. By those in the industry, these moves are viewed as direct responses to Snapchat’s meteoric rise. If these networks can offer private messaging features along with their public sides, they might get people to stay and share both private and public content.
  • Google Talk, better known as Gchat, allows Gmail users to instant message either with one other person or with small groups of people. Google hasn’t published user numbers, but everyone who has a Google account has the ability to Gchat. As of June 2012, there were 420 million Gmail users, so if even 5% of them use Gchat, that’s 21 million folks. For me, it’s an integral part of my daily routine, one in which I often share links with friends that I don’t want to broadcast publicly (that’s right, I don’t tweet every cat picture I come across). Often, links will spread from one friend to the next, all shared out of the public eye; once I sent my coworker a Gchat with a link, and two hours later I got the same link from another friend. Just by being passed around our group of mutual friends, the link found its way back to me through several degrees of separation.

For users, this is a great thing. It allows us to better compartmentalize our lives and share relevant content with relevant people. For brands, it creates unique challenges. When content is shared out of the public eye, it can be harder to track who found your website by which means. There’s no easy way to see if someone came to your site through Gchat, for instance. In other cases, such as Snapchat or Instagram private messaging, it cuts out the ability to link back to sites at all, which means it’s harder to create calls to action. It’s certainly harder to monitor your reputation and find what people are saying about you.

So should we just throw our hands up in defeat? Nah. As a marketer, you’ve just got to be more creative in creating experiences that are worth sharing with both a crowd and one-on-one. You’ve got to start looking at some forms of media as less direct conversion to a website and more of awareness building, like ye olde magazine ads. And, of course, take the time to focus on networks that really make sense for you. If your target audience is men over 50, don’t worry as much about Snapchat. But always be aware, so you can stay one step ahead of…The Shadow Internet. 

photo credit: Georgie Pauwels via photopin cc