On Monday the 18th of January, Saatchi & Saatchi announced a Facebook-based PR challenge for internship hopefuls applying to their summer scholarship scheme. The challenge was, “Create a new Facebook group. The objective is to get as many people as possible to join your group. The top 50% of all the groups will go through to the next round.”

Soon, over 800 groups had sprung up and the avid creators were busy encouraging their digitally-connected friends to join, spread the word and thereby help them into an internship with lashings of industry kudos to boot. One participant in the competition, Tiffany Philippou, saw the brief the day it was released. Within 36 hours, she had started Secret London – a group which prompts its members to share their top tips on where to eat, drink, gather, relax, explore and be inspired in the nation’s sprawling metropolis. Having graduated from Bristol University only last year, Philippou had returned to her home city feeling suddenly out of the loop. London changes so frequently that that’s hardly surprising, but the idea struck her that other people would want to find and share things about London in order to make it a more accessible place to live in, visit or come back to.

Philippou says she has always been interested in working in PR but added that the Saatchi & Saatchi brief offered a moment of spontaneous creativity: “because they promoted it on Facebook, it was right at the forefront of your mind. It wasn’t just for people who knew they wanted to work in public relations – it was all a bit ‘just go for a challenge’ – I think most people are doing it for that reason.”

“I spent the first day thinking if I’m going to do it then I’ve got to have something good,” she added, “and it was on the Tuesday that I thought of Secret London. By the afternoon I had made the group and started to invite my friends.”

“What secrets are going to be left if they all get posted on this group??”
In just over two weeks, the initial trickle of interested acquaintances has boomed to well over 150,000 members and, although not actually the most popular of the Saatchi & Saatchi-motivated ideas (see the leader-board here), Secret London is notable in being almost entirely a product of its members’ contributions and their enthusiasm for the simple, original concept of publicising hidden places in an often overwhelming urban world.

While some suggestions are little more than cheeky plugs for pre-advertised gigs and pub nights, the majority of contributions take the form of exciting revelations about unassuming nature reserves tucked away behind tube stations, or bewitchingly quaint restaurants, or sightings of Banksy graffiti. And some of the most compelling ideas have come from those who fully interact with the concept of telling ‘secrets’ with others. Some contributions are worded like true personal confessions – places or things which someone has been enjoying individually for years, but which they now want to make known to the world.

Some have criticised the potential for a mass exposé of London’s best bits. “What secrets are going to be left if they all get posted on this group??” despaired one onlooker. But Philippou commented, “the whole point of the group is for people to share their city because this is about a community where people want to engage and exchange. I think that’s a good thing.”

The group has also inspired users to contribute in ways which Philippou didn’t expect. Almost from the very beginning, users have been adding their photographs of London to the group’s gallery. There are more than 4,000 snaps in the collection now and while the tone varies wildly (from architectural portraits by Timothy Soar to spoofs), all the photographs share a common purpose in capturing some supposedly iconic or recognisable snippet of the capital city. One member pointed out that most of the images don’t have any people in them – a paradoxical characteristic, given the density of London’s huge population. But is it so surprising? One general theme of Secret London could be described as a desire to humanise and personalise the urban sprawl into more manageable and intimate places or experiences within it. The photographs rise to the challenge by presenting us with strikingly lonely viewpoints. They depict objects and spaces apparently only appreciated by the wily photographer – secret snaps of the uncanny and unsung in a city quickly bored of tourism’s clichés and hotspots.

And there have been valiant attempts to encourage a real pulling apart of London’s constituent materials. Urban exploring is a phenomenon which sees curious inhabitants of cities and towns break into abandoned warehouses, factories and even asylums in order to connect with somewhere that has now become defunct and its history forgotten. A handful of urban explorers have suggested that Secret London members investigate cordoned-off parts of the London Underground or other tunnel networks as well as disused buildings in and around the capital.

Ian Shillito is a paranormal enthusiast, author and haunted and hidden tours operator in London. He is another example of someone who has contributed to Secret London as well as taken inspiration from it. He said that interest in the underground life of the city has been growing recently, perhaps as a symptom of international events: “What tends to happen is that in history, spikes of interest in the paranormal and the clandestine often coincide with wars and catastrophes. With the state of the world as it is today, people have been affected by disasters and it’s clearly evident in how they behave.”

“Half the fun was exploring somewhere at night with the lights off”
Shillito’s tours play on people’s interest in mystery and enigma on all levels. “People get to come into places at night-time when they’re not meant to be there,” he said, “We did the cabinet war-rooms last year, but half the fun was simply exploring somewhere with the lights off. You get to go places where the public don’t go.”

Cities have always stimulated that dual sense of fascination and association that makes them so beguiling. Interpretations of urban environments have fluctuated over the years, but right now (and that’s what we’re about, after all) there is a burgeoning interest in exploring them in greater public depth, in sharing their intricacies more openly than ever before and reclaiming ground which once felt impersonal and dominating. Secret London, by the virtue of how its members have responded to it, has become an expression of that. Some have already quoted that famous quip by Samuel Johnson: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” and they seem to be determined to prove him right in new ways.

Tiffany Philippou says that, originally, she had never expected the group to achieve the astronomical popularity that it has, but now she’s ready to take the concept to a new level.

“The first stage of the plans is that we’re looking for help from people to make the project grow. The group has always been led by its popularity and its members so what I want is to get people giving their suggestions for a dedicated website. We want to know what they think the site should look like and what they want on it. It has to be done the way they want – I’ll be leaving a lot of control to current members. For instance, I’m also beginning a design-a-logo competition which will be based on our original concept.”

Any ideas, Philippou said, can be contributed to a new discussion thread in the original group.

It’s only logical that the process should retain its democratic roots. It’s more interesting and more vibrant that way. And it’s certainly a refreshing departure from well-worn guidebook ‘tip-offs’ that usually end up being far less exciting than they sounded. It’s secrets, after all, which are really worth knowing.

UPDATE: A mere two weeks have passed since I wrote this article and Secret London has become a world-wide phenomenon, morphing into an entrepreneurial wonder-story and spawning a beautifully intuitive new website. It’s not even one full month since the original Facebook group was created. But, er, don’t tell anyone. 16/02/2010.

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