If you’re a Facebook user, you might have come across a new group by the name of Secret London. This group is dedicated to publicising those little lesser-known places you come across that deserve to be known better. It’s a simple idea, in theory not dissimilar to the sort of thing Time Out has been doing for decades, and not even the first group of its type. However, it’s been a massive, massive success. At the time of writing it has over 193,000 members after being online for less than a month, and its founder – Tiffany Philippou – is planning to turn it into an actual startup company.
What differentiates this from a lot of these “secret city” groups, though, is the personal nature of it, simply because more-or-less the whole thing is user-generated. You put a question on the discussion boards and people can give their recommendations and opinions. The questions under discussion range from your standard Time Out territory (restaurants, gigs, places to take the kids and the like) to more offbeat requests (where to get cheap hair colouring, beautiful churches) and even things like recommended London movies (Yr. Humble Chronicler recommends Alfie and The Ladykillers). There’s also the photo album, a massive collection of odd and interesting photos taken around the city.
The group has its detractors, however. One notable is http://thethirdestate.net/2010/02/why-secret-london-might-ruin-our-city/ who believes that by drawing people’s attention to the existence of these places, we’ll be contributing to the ongoing fragmentation of the city, not to mention filling these places with those awful, awful tourists. I’m not sure that I agree with this.
The thing is, London’s a big place. It has a lot of secret nooks and crannies, and many of them frankly won’t be of much interest to more than a select few. For instance, I know some fantastic curry houses in Tooting. Well, that’s lovely for those who live in Tooting, but is anyone who lives in, say, Feltham or Brent Cross going to travel all that way? And York House Gardens in Twickenham is a lovely place to spend an hour or two, but how far would you come just to spend an hour or two there? The appeal of these secret places is, I would suggest, largely local and personal. It’s not like every single one of them is going to be swamped by 19,100 members (it grew since I started this entry) every weekend.
The other point – and this is the counterpoint made by Philippou herself – is that a lot of these secret places are small and independent – shops, museums, restaurants and the like that are not in conventional tourists guides, and are too obscure and eclectic ever to get such a mention. The reality of the situation is that such places need custom, and this group could provide that. When you have a Starbucks on every street, it’s a fine way of redressing the balance. Indeed, far from contributing to the fragmentation of the city, I think it will serve to place more emphasis on the little things, the quirky and unusual spots that give the city its character.
But I think the thing that bothers me most about the anti-Secret London lobby is the slightly snobby implication that this is knowledge that is simply not for the masses. They should be content to buy their books at Waterstones and eat their Italian food at Carluccio’s. We, meanwhile, shall look at them and chuckle.
In any case, it’s not like this is doing anything new. As I said at the beginning, it’s not a million miles from what the magazines and newspapers of London have been doing to years. The only difference is that now it’s in a Web 2.0 format.
http://blog.secretlondon.us/ – Secret London’s blog
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&ref=ts&gid=259068995911 – The group itself