Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Secret Sharing

This year, Trend-watching has been talking about rise of what they dub the online Transparency trend, a phenomenon fuelled by the likes of Microsoft. But there is perhaps a counter-trend simultaneously occurring – one concerned with the power of secrecy.

Brands have long recognised the seductive power of secrecy. Coke was arguably one of the first to utilise this basic human truth by creating the urban legend around its
secret formula back in 1920. Even today in the midst of a culture heavily concerned with truth and transparency, a culture that has spawned the phenomenon of blogging, secrecy is still a highly powerful driver, especially when it comes to forging communities - or at least making people feel as though they are part of a community. Mini for example recently produced some fascinating DM packs which enabled Mini members alone to decode print adverts. Secrecy is a very powerful way to make people feel part of a select group. Nokia’s The Passenger uses a similar tactic, inviting you to momentarily become part of what appears to be a secret, covert mission. MSN’s Conspiracy Theory is another example, as is Puma’s hidden web page (lift up the bottom right hand corner). All are designed to create a feeling of collusion and secret belonging.

Indeed secrecy is a sure fast way of forging very strong group feelings. Secret societies are after all, some of the most tightly bonded communities around - something that ARG’s tap into. Sharing secrets can forge bonds between complete strangers. “We are bound by the secrets we share” Dame Judi Dench tells us in Notes on a Scandal. As a result the types of groups that spring up around ARG’s are perhaps less ‘communities’ than secret societies, each member bound to others by the knowledge he/she has. In fact
secret sharing is nothing new. ARG’s are simply tapping into a notion invented by cryptologists almost thirty years ago.

The vast popularity of both the Da Vinci Code and LOST is evidence of the hugely seductive power of secrecy and our increasing desire for it. And the digital world is well placed to take advantage of this. In popular culture it has long been closely associated with secrecy – from
hackers fighting governments and institutions to the mysterious computer program in LOST and of course the digital conspiracy of The Matrix - the digital world has always been closely linked to covert operations and conspiracy theories. Computer gaming communities for instance have long been based on the secret codes and hidden information involved in the games. And just as agents in the real world receive information and tip-offs from unknown sources, identified only by coded pseudonyms (think The Cancer Man and Mr. X in the X-Files and M in James Bond) online, we too readily accept snippets of information from strangers we know only by usernames and pseudonyms. The very set up of the communities we form lend themselves to a notion of secrecy and the covert.

In an age where information is more accessible and companies more open than ever before, we are still fascinated by secrecy and its power to connect us to other beings. We have an overwhelming desire to share secrets anonymously with others. It is a social currency - just look at the success of
Postsecret and the soon to be live Wikileaks. It is simple human nature. “Secrets,” Howard Barker once said, “seduce us. We all want to share secrets.”

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