would you cross to the dark side?

Drugs, porn, spies and trolls; the ‘dark net’ seems a sordid place. But is it all bad? At our latest breakfast club we were joined by Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at think tank Demos, to explore what the growing popularity of this online underworld could mean for brands…

Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net

Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net

So what exactly is the dark net and how does it work?
It’s a means of surfing the net without your browsing history being tracked, financial actions traced, or personal data collected. ‘Tor’, the most common browser to host dark net sites, can be downloaded through your normal browser and once up and running, the sites you frequent are virtually undetectable, even to the likes of MI6 and the FBI.

What kinds of sites does Tor host?
Countless – political groups, adult entertainment sites, transhumanist forums… One of the biggest pages on the dark net is The Silk Road (think Amazon of the drugs market). It sells more than 20,000 different products, the majority of which are drugs – though in April 2014, the most popular item was a counterfeit £20 Tesco voucher going for eight quid! Forums for people with extreme mental disorders like severe depression and anorexia are also common – places where people correspond under anonymous personas, creating sub-cultures where deadly advice is wrapped up as social support from friends and peers.

That all sounds pretty dire – is there a bright side?
There’s no way of knowing if an anonymous drugs vendor on The Silk Road is using their profit to fuel other dangerous, illegal activity. Then again, for the consumer, it’s a means of buying drugs, which they’re going to get their hands on one way or another, without interacting with dealers on street corners in high-crime areas, so you could argue their safety is improved. Similarly, users of ‘pro-anorexia’ sites and suicide forums encourage each other to partake in destructive behaviour – clearly dangerous. But, they only exist because there’s not currently a decent resource available on normal browsers, where people can receive regular advice and support from medical professionals. If I were marketing for the NHS, I’d be looking at these sites as an opportunity to engage with people who clearly need support, but don’t want to seek out their GP.

What about household brands – could they learn anything from their dark net contemporaries?
Yes – customer service and social engagement. Most businesses have both as key focus points, but if there’s one brand reaping the benefits, it’s The Silk Road. As all users are anonymous, highly detailed customer reviews are the single way vendors build themselves a reputation. I reviewed 120 pieces of feedback on the site, and the average score was 4.9/5 – that’s unbelievable satisfaction! It’s because this system’s been introduced into an industry where there’s never historically been a functioning market place. Obviously the likes of eBay and Amazon make use of reviews to a degree, but I think it’s something individual e-commerce sites could utilise further.

Is the rise in dark net users a threat to brands that rely on capturing big data?
Most dark net consumers are on there to dabble in illegal activity, or engage in behaviours that may cause embarrassment if traced back to them. However, there’s a growing number of regular social media sites cropping up on Tor, that appeal to consumers who have concerns over data sovereignty (who’s holding information about me? Who’s sharing it? And why?) What that hasn’t yet translated to is hoards of people switching off from social media sites on regular browsers and jumping over to Tor. If this happens, it will obviously hold huge implications for advertisers.

What we are seeing among younger audiences is consumers behaving in very different ways depending on what forum they’re talking in, what social site they’re logged into, who they’re connected to on each platform. It’s leading to a fragmentation of online identities, which means whether we’re talking about regular browsers, or the dark net as an advertising space, brands will have to be ever more specific in what content they’re serving to consumers, where they’re delivering it, and how they interpret consumer information.