There are many reasons why you can get to feel a bit lonely, or maybe just in need of some fresh new people to talk to. Our lives can get in a rut, we work hard these days, kids and obligations get in the way of social activities but most of all, the world gets bigger all the time. We meet many people every day but often just do not connect with them. The Secretclub is one way of connecting to strangers in a fun, safe and easy way.
Recently I found myself unemployed with a generous severance package, no kids or other dependents and therefore ample time to pursue other interests. In other words: I found myself utterly bored.
I was used to working 11-hour days and coming home to a lovely girlfriend with whom to share how my day was. On weekends I always had friends over, too. I won?t bore you with the specifics, they are pretty mundane in any case, but here I was, on my own, thirty-something, in my nice hip urban apartment and with nothing to do. The friends all work during the day -- what was left after a, albeit amicable, relationship break-up, and I also got to realise that while I was always surrounded by people, I didn?t exactly have a lot of fun with them. Deep, meaningful, friendship yes. Fun and just fooling around, no. It happens slowly: people move out of town, get married, pursue this elusive ?a life? thing and some, sadly, passed away.
Now, do not misunderstand me; I made good use of this rare combination of comfortable finances (not lavish, but not too tight either) and lots of free time: I went to see exhibitions I wanted to see; I checked out the new movies; and I indulged in my LARP passion. The thing is, these things, fun as they were, did not provide me with plain and simple day-to-day fun interaction with people. I still found myself home alone with no one to talk to but the cats.
Matters were made worse by the fact that, actually, I had a lot to talk about. I would come home with twigs still in my hair and yet another ruined pair of boots, hopped up on adrenaline and no one to listen to me recount how I managed to get that way.
Does this sound familiar, even remotely? Here is how I solved it, and it works so well, I just had to share.
But first some background on how the idea started.
Fresh out of college I rolled straight into one of the best jobs I have ever had. I would never have thought it before I started. I was lured in by the fun people I would be working with and the high salary. I went to college to become a designer and I wound up pioneering marketing research for multi-media. This was a small company though, and I quickly found out that my tasks would also include the grunt-work: interviewing, moderating focus groups and, on occasion, even cleaning the toilet -- both metaphorically and non.
Now focus groups are in essence just groups of assorted consumers (you and me, in other words) who get put in a room and talk about whatever it is the client wants to sell. From this tremendous insights can be gained about exactly why people use certain products and what they like, or dislike, about them. You can be fairly sure that most, if not all, products in your local supermarket have at some point been tested this way. In my case, I mostly tried to figure out how people used websites and on-line services, and where they would get stuck or wanted things different. Next time you order something on-line think of me, I might have been the one who figured out how to make the process as smooth as possible for you.
What truly amazed me about all this was how much fun it was. You see people every day: in the checkout line, on the way to work? and you never really see them as more than background filler, perhaps a bit of a nuisance. Put a group of such random strangers in a room together and get them to talk (there are tricks for that, some which I will share later on) and suddenly they become fun and interesting. Often such groups would exchange telephone numbers and arrange to meet again later. The drab fellow with the unkempt hair turns out to be a world-class pianist. Meanwhile, the tired looking middle-aged lady shares interests with you that you had never have thought she would have. And so on.
Everybody has a story and everybody has an interesting and fun side. Thing is, this often remains a well-hidden secret.
One day I was sitting behind my computer with nothing to do. I?d browsed all my friends? profiles on Hyves (a social networking site similar to MySpace) and none of them had much new to say. Now, I always have been in the habit of accosting friends-of-friends on-line if I thought they were interesting; however, often times I wound up on a profile of someone I thought looked fun, with no real reason to contact him or her. Suddenly the thought just struck me: people are keeping it a secret how fun they are!
The Secretclub was born.
On most social networking sites you can set up a ?hub? or special section dedicated to a specific interest or topic. People can then join these and engage in conversation. These are usually geared towards bringing together people with a shared interest or hobby. What I wanted was something that worked the other way around. I wanted people to find each other regardless of their interests, walk of life and so on.
I set up a "Hub". This is usually a simple process involving little more than a few clicks and thinking of a name. The name was simple: "The Secretclub". (There is no space between secret and club, because it's not the club that is the secret.) Next came a quirky introduction text. Something light-hearted and fun, to put people in a relaxed mood and drive the point home that this wasn?t a place for seriousness. I also made a point of mentioning that this wasn?t a ?dating? thing. Dating sites can be fun, but they are about connecting people with similar interests and lifestyles on a one-on-one basis.
Then to find the people...
Hyves offers several ways to control who joins your "Hub"; open to all, after permission from the owner and by entering a secret password. The latter was perfect, of course. Then I set out to find people. I got a set of dice and rolled to decide my route through the network, starting at other "hubs" I was member of. I went to the members-list and rolled for number of people to the left, number of rows down and then invited the person the dice selected for me. I also cheated at first, to get the thing rolling, and selected friends and friends-of-friends whom I thought for whatever reason would be into the concept. Only on the first day, though.
I was blown away by how well it worked. Only one in about twenty invitees actually joined, and of those only about one in five actively engaged in conversation, so it took some elbow grease to get the ball rolling but after that it gained momentum of its own and really took off.
79 active participants and counting.
Right now there are discussions going on about such diverse subjects as mid-term papers, excuses to eat an herring, musical preferences and dealing with grief after a friend passes away.
Recently a group of people on the "club" found themselves wanting to go to the same open-air event the very next day. Long story short, the next morning we (I was one of them) piled into an old beaten up car and just went. It was tremendous fun, and most of us knew each other only a week, and only on-line. We interacted as if we were old friends even though -- best of all, perhaps -- a more unlikely group of friends you probably can?t imagine. Students and businessmen, Wiccans and practising Jews, a geologist and a yuppie living in a hip urban apartment with his two cats.
Since then there have been concert-meetings, nights on the town, movie nights and a costumed party.
How to set up a Secretclub of your own.
I am an experienced internet-marketer. The steps below were well thought out, quirky and random as some of them may seem.
First of all, if you haven't yet, you have to join a social networking site. Be sure to connect with as many friends as you can. Not only is this a perk in itself of these sites, it helps with your "cred". No friends on your profile is often seen as suspect. You want to avoid being labelled as a fly-by, someone who might be there for two days and then never return.
Then you set up a "hub". These are named differently on all sites so this is something you?ll have to do some research into. Don?t be disheartened though: it is usually quite simple.
Set your "hub" to some sort of controlled access. Best of all is if you can make sure that non-members can?t read the discussions going on. This may seem contrary to the point but it is quite essential: you want to create an atmosphere of privacy to get people to come out of their shell.
Device some simple rules for your club. I would be quite pleased if you stuck with the "Secretclub" concept; I'd love it if this thing became a meme that spread across the Internet. If so, please feel free to contact me for the logo I used. The "Secretclub" really has only two rules:
Every person is fun, only this is often a well-kept secret.
No bigotry or being "mean".
You can think up rules of your own, of course, but I think those are what make the Secretclub what it is, so please stick to those if you want to use my concept as-is.
Mind, also, that rules put people off. Keep them simple and friendly. Certainly do not threaten with any action if people break the rules. If someone turns out to be undesirable after all, just quietly remove him or her. Yet, give people the impression that this is "their" club, to make their own.
Put some thought into your introduction text. Usually this goes onto the front-page for your ?hub? so it will be the first thing people see before they decide to join. Make it friendly, make it a bit fun and quirky and make sure you mention the basic tenets of the hub.
Then device a standard invitational text, something you can cut-and-paste, but be sure to leave a bit where you personalise it by telling people why you chose to invite them. ("I liked your profile", "I think you have an interesting job or hobby", and so on.) Share this with club members so they can invite new people, too. I set up a topic specifically to help people invite others, with some hints and words of encouragement.
Then start inviting people.
When people join, be sure to send them a private message to welcome them. Don't call them out on the open forum on the hub itself. Some people prefer to sit back and wait a bit first.
Actively encourage members to invite new strangers. Keep doing this throughout.
Avoid inviting people who have set their profile to private. This is an obvious sign that they want, well, privacy.
Read a profile a bit first, before inviting someone. For example, you want to avoid sending a quirky message to someone who has just suffered a death in the family. Be aware that these days people also keep profiles of deceased loved ones on-line as a memorial. I ran into a few of those.
Steel yourself against nasty replies. Sometimes people just don't understand, or are having a bad day. It's not personal.
Do not invite friends of other members but rather, if someone in their friends-group seems interesting, run it by said members. You don't want recent ex-es or that annoying aunt on there, after all.
Provide one discussion topic where people can introduce themselves, and nudge them along by providing standard questions to answer. It works best if you use questions that aren?t too probing into people's private lives but do offer an insight into the person. Some examples:
M/F (Often not clear from a person's profile.)
Invent a new word and tell us what it means
Pick one: Yes/No/Maybe
And so on. The apparently nonsensical questions leave people a bit of space to be quirky and joking themselves, but also bring across what this person is like a lot better than more standard questions, while not feeling 'intrusive'. It's not really about the answers anyway; it's about how they phrase them.
Then get the talk going by providing topics a bit like party games. Don't make them serious; people will volunteer serious topics themselves. Some examples:
Honest answer thread: Discuss what you like, but you can only post a reply if you also honestly tell us what music you are listening to right then. Post a cheer when the first Abba song comes along.
What is annoying you right now, and why?
Finish this story. One sentence each, wait for at least two other contributions before posting the next sentence.
Then, if your chosen site allows, populate the site with funny YouTube video's, LOLcat pictures, your favourite band's latest clip, and whatever else you feel like sharing. Seeing lots of previously posted content will help people get actively involved themselves. It offers "hooks" for them to join the conversation and makes it feel less intimidating for them. Posting in an empty forum is like speaking up in a silent crowd. Many people just don't do it.
How to deal with possible issues
Setting up a "hub" makes you a little bit of a Webmaster. You take on some responsibility for those on it. While on the whole it is best to let people get on with it, the situation may arise that you have to step in and get things back to fun. There is a thin line between people thanking you for your actions and people dropping out like flies because you ruined their fun by being too harsh, so be sure to gauge the mood of the forum regarding any actions you contemplate taking.
Here are some hints to help you defuse possible bad situations when people get out of line or arguments and so-called "flame wars" occur:
Remain polite and respectful at all times.
If people want off, help them.
We found that minors joining the club presented some possible issues regarding their interactions with adults. Try not to invite minors. Set up at least two administrators, if your chosen site allows, and make at least one female. Let the minor know these people are there to help if things get uncomfortable. Beyond that, do not make it a 'big deal'. Do keep an eye out though, for possible inappropriateness. Especially if the minor conducts him or herself as older. People flirt. The minor may be the subject of inappropriate attention even if the attention-giver is of the best of intentions and unaware of the minor's age.
Do not broadcast the minor's age. For one, this violates his or her's privacy; and, secondly, it is like putting out an advertisement to people with bad intentions. So, do your part, help keep minors safe on-line.
People who do go out of bounds even when they are aware there are minors present are to be removed right away. Sorry to say it, but this is a world with, alas, some predators in it. Do not advertise this policy; just implement it when needed, quietly and without fuss.
Keep things fun and light-hearted. A wink is often as good as a stern look.
Sometimes people actually enjoy strong debate and venting at each other. If people often erupt in strongly worded debate, consider setting up a separate topic for 'light hearted flame-warring' where this is permissible. Ask people to keep it limited to there. It helps to challenge people in said topic to be eloquent, perhaps rewarding points or praise for well-worded ?flames?. This bends the phenomenon back from nasty to fun.
Secretclub hasn't experienced these issues so far, but this worked well elsewhere.
This is basically it. Enjoy! Remember to maintain an open and respectful attitude to people from different walks of life and you will get the same in return. Have fun!