I read a blog post by Greg Knauss, the creator of an iPhone app called Romantimatic, an app “to remind the distracted or forgetful to text nice things to their significant other”. Sounds like a cool app, right?
The blog post is only partially about the app itself, instead focusing more on the “medium-level Internet pile-on” that happened after its release.
Here is a paragraph from the article:
Derision from Cult of Mac. Disapproval from Esquire. The accusation that my goofy project has killed romance as we know it from Elle. Fifteen hundred words of high-minded arm-chair psychology and moral indignation from the Atlantic, including the comparison of the app’s users to — reductio ad absurdum — those who need reminding not to harm animals. And thousands and thousands of excoriating tweets.
Such a harmless app, but such a harsh reaction! It made me think about why people view it as indicating something broken in the person who uses such an app.
I figure it has something to do with people’s perception of being included in a technological solution to a social or interpersonal problem without their consent.
A hypothetical analogy would be a dating website… but one that didn’t connect the user with other users, but showed them automatically created profile pages of non-users using external sources like Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and Twitter accounts. All those disparate, but publicly viewable, data streams are out there, and it would only take one startup to use it to automatically create dating site profiles.
The users of the dating site could then pay to get the phone number or email or other contact information of their top picks, and end messages asking for dates.
But that sounds creepy! Right? The Romantimatic app is nowhere near as extreme as this example, but I think the visceral reaction against it comes about because it feels like it lands somewhere along a path that leads to such a world. We want to have social connections that have equal amounts of effort, time, emotion, and even money, flowing both ways.
The smartphone technology element is only one factor in this equation. The technology can be far more simple, like a stranger approaching you for the purposes of romantic engagement in a bar is acceptable and not creepy, but the same stranger approaching you in your kitchen is utterly unthinkable.
The level of social engagement is variable too. It doesn’t just have to be about romantic relationships. The creepiness still arises when there is unequal access to the technological solution; being signed up for email news letters or being added to FaceBook groups without permission gets at the same source of discomfort. Taken to the extreme: email spam.
While it would be a completely different app, one that functions like Romantimatic but was accessible by both parties in a relationship would bypass the creepiness factor and the resulting reactions. I can imagine a game where the user’s partner one would put in some simple keywords or phrases that they’d like to hear from their significant other, but that remained hidden in the app. The user would then compose a new romantic text message whenever they are reminded too, and if they guess the keyword or phrase they get… well, probably nothing but a gold star. The point of the game isn’t the game itself. The game is simply a way to make sure that the partner knows the romantic text messages is part of a technological solution, and their entering some keywords is consent of inclusion.