Comment: The dark forest theory of the internet

Mass communication is out and exclusivity is in. Colin Nagy explains how brands are creating intimate online communities.

Colin Nagy is a brand strategist based in New York and Los Angeles.

When it comes to brands communicating with their customers, scale has always been the name of the game. Fans and followers are to be amassed, and living out loud is the norm. Well, maybe not anymore. There are signs that brands are starting to experiment more with the opposite approach: private, not easily accessed networks reserved for key customers. And what Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter, is calling the ‘dark forest theory of the internet’ might have something to do with it.

The thinking goes that in response to predatory behaviour in online public spaces – ad tracking, trolls and so on – more of us are retreating to safer, closed spaces such as private messaging, WhatsApp and Slack. According to Strickler, ‘These are all spaces where depressurised conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimised and non-gamified environments.’ The data also backs this up. In a 2019 survey carried out by creative agency Zak, nearly two-thirds of 1,000 people, all under 30, said they like communicating in private message threads over open forums and feeds.

Brands are trying to take advantage of this. Earlier this year, Korean beauty brand Glow Recipe launched a private Instagram account to communicate on a more intimate level with customers, rather than blast out a particularly stylised worldview. Clothing brand Everlane has also experimented with this in the past, while military backpack brand Goruck was early to recognise the potential of more private forums and micro-communities. In 2014, instead of setting up a Facebook page, Goruck set up a community group where everyone had an equal voice, as opposed to the brand making posts from on high to lowly followers.

‘Silicon Valley sees a business opportunity in making conversations feel more intimate and personalised.’

The same kind of community ethos extends to the urban techwear brand Outlier’s very active Reddit channel. Conversations often comprise true fans debating, say, the merits of one particular Swiss fabric over another. Abe Burmeister, Outlier’s founder, tells me that the forum serves as one of the brand’s most effective ways to convert traffic into sales. For Ana Andjelic, marketing strategist and author of The Business of Aspiration, ‘The key here is not necessarily prestige and exclusivity, but identity and belonging. There’s a pure pleasure in the intimacy of consuming together, along with enjoying status within a community.’

Predictably, perhaps, Silicon Valley sees a business opportunity in making conversations feel more intimate and personalised. Attentive is a software company that claims to help you make ‘personalised text messaging one of your top three revenue sources in just three months’. It is trying to supercharge the future of customer relationship management tools – in January, less than six months after it raised $40m, the company raised another $70m.

The notion of one-to-one marketing – and having a peerless connection with your consumer – is the holy grail for any brand. But these new approaches, happening anywhere from SMS to private Instagram channels to messenger apps, are providing feedback obsessed brands with something more immediately useful than the scale they once lusted for. Those that have a say in the making of the product, the thinking goes, are more likely to buy it. How many customers want brands texting them remains to be seen. However, the idea of moving towards the ‘dark forest’ of more privacy, more intimacy and presumably more interesting content seems like a welcome change from the branded crassness of the past several years we’ve come to expect on social media. 

Read more comment pieces from Courier columnists.

You might like these, too