Remember your "Top 8 Friends" on MySpace?
If there was an ugly time in social's history, this was it. Not just due to the gaudy graphics, but also due to the fact that we were in love with the new possibilities of our digital selves. If you loathe today's Instagram selfies, they are masterpieces compared to the MySpace days when our crappy camera phones made our already awkward duck face reflections look remarkably worse.
Today, we should be a tad more optimistic about social media's next act. While there are plenty of places to go online for mass public conversations, the random days of ChatRoulette and the competitive days of collecting friends are (almost) behind us. Moreover, social media is here to stay—so we ought to get smarter about how we build it and how we use it.
As danah boyd describes in her bestselling book, It's Complicated, "Rather than resisting technology or fearing what might happen if youth embrace social media, adults should help youth develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complications brought about by living in networked publics."
The next wave of social media sites complicates less and protects more. These trends present an opportunity for us to erase our digital footprints and to engage among smaller, more private groups—or even the possibility to reach out anonymously altogether.
SnapChat is one of the first mainstream tools to reinforce our desire to live more privately. While the term "disappearing" is a misnomer (after all, smarthphone screenshots are always just a tap away), this app makes it easy to share personal photos and videos within a smaller social network.
Cyber Dust is following suit. This iPhone app is set up for anyone over 13 years old to message without leaving a trace. The company describes on its site that all "messages disappear off of the recipient's device and our servers 30 seconds after the recipient enters the chat room and reads the message." Mark Cuban, whose team is behind the app, says this about Cyber Dust on his Twitter account: "Nothing good ever comes from friends or business associates being able to keep/forward your texts." Disgraced former NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner (a.k.a. Carlos Danger) would likely agree.
Path was one of the first networks to introduce a friend limit—capping this number at 150 people. Last year, they become even more exclusive with new features to enable sharing with an even smaller inner circle.
In a corporate environment, Yammer does for businesses what Facebook and others cannot. While the platform does stress openness, it does so for individual companies and their clients. These private spaces are social, but they are restricted for more productive and relevant interactions.
There is also a growing number of apps that enable you to create private groups, apps such as Everyme so you can share safely with a select community of people. With this download, you can slice and dice your network into smaller groups.
Secret focuses on sharing secrets within your network, connecting you based on the contacts on your iPhone (in other words, you know the secret is from someone you know—but you don't know who it is from exactly). Some users are relying on this app to vent about their jobs, among other things, and others are simply lapping up the gossip.
Whisper (iOS/Android) is similar in some ways, but its secrets are displayed on top of images and its focus is on public discovery since it's not tied in any way to your network. There is an element of digital therapy to this app since a lot of what people are posting is akin to bite-sized diary entries.
Secret recently announced that users, despite the fact that they're anonymous, now also need to be nice. If you post something defamatory or mean, it (or you) could be deleted.
These secret-filled networks do feel a bit (well, a lot) childish, but what they do enforce is the reality that there are plenty of users who want to stay anonymous online.
The appetite for disappearing, private, and secret-filled social media is growing—perhaps putting a final nail in the coffin of the big, public, social media giants who became too personal, too often, and too fast.
[Image: Flickr user kennejima]