A proposal for better smartphone apps (part 1)

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For a brief overview of the current problems with smartphone apps, consider reading this article summarizing the ideas from the most known critics to tech, especially smartphone tech.

  1. PROBLEM 1: Today’s apps are cold.
  2. SOLUTION 1: Create warm apps.

PROBLEM 1: Today’s apps are cold.

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The dominant mode of interaction between users of the top smartphone apps is that of the viewer and the performer: the performer uploads content that the viewer consumes. It’s a one-sided relationship: the performer creates experiences for the viewer, but the viewer does little in return.

  • Netflix: entertainment studios upload movies and TV shows that you watch.
  • Snapchat: friends or celebrities create stories that you follow.
  • Instagram: friends or celebrities upload photos that you follow.
  • Facebook: friends or celebrities upload photos and write status updates that you follow.
  • YouTube: video creators upload videos to channels that you subscribe to.
  • Spotify and Pandora: artists upload songs that you listen to.

On its own, the viewer-performer relationship is not a problem. Being a fan of a YouTuber or a singer or an actor can be a good thing: they create beautiful or enjoyable experiences for you. What’s wrong with that? On its own, nothing.

The real problem is that the viewer-performer relationship is beginning to become the default mode of interaction in the smartphone app space. And viewer-performer relationships are cold. People don’t form friendships or connections from one-sided exchanges. No matter how emotionally connected the viewer may feel to the performer (or the performer to the viewer), a real relationship doesn’t exist.

In fact, most of the time the viewer-performer relationship is really about the performer posing off to impress the viewer, who is usually envious of the performer’s life and is stalking them (or wants to date them).

If almost all online relationships by default are understood in terms of viewer and performer,

real two-sided friendships or connections become increasingly uncommon.

In the smartphone app space, there are very few popular apps that promote two-sided exchange.

Some of the exceptions:

  • Messages
  • Facebook Messenger
  • Gmail

And as we begin to relate to the world more and more in terms of the rules of the online world, the end result is the viewer-performer relationship begins to permeate into the offline world.

People who spent most of their lives without smartphones like to say that technology has made us worse at connecting with other people. I don’t believe this is true. I believe the problem is the way that technology is made. A lot of tech is made cold. We need to warm it up.

SOLUTION 1: Create warm apps.

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The basic requirement for an app to be considered warm is that it promotes authentic two-sided exchange. No impressing or stalking. Both parties actually get to know each other.

The goal is to create real friendships or connections.

With that in mind, apps that cultivate real friendships or connections can be broken down into two categories:

  1. Apps that create new bonds
  2. Apps that upkeep or strengthen existing bonds

To get the ball rolling, here’s a concept for each app category.


Apps that create new bonds: VOICE CHAT ROULETTE

Voice chat roulette is chatroulette.com + phone calls. When you log into the app, there are no profiles, no pictures, no webcam, just voice. The purpose of this is to focus on getting to know the other person. You don’t swipe left or right just because you think the other person looks ugly or boring. The app is about discovering the other person without assumptions.

On first prompt, you choose what kind of conversation you want: sharing stories, asking questions, talking about life problems, telling jokes, phone sex. When you choose your kind of conversation, you’re paired with a random user, and the conversation begins.

The app would recommend headset use, so the app can push question/activity prompts if the conversation quiets down.

Finally, the app would include an optional “share my personal contact info” button, which you can press if you want to continue the conversation beyond the app.


Apps that upkeep or strengthen existing bonds: PIXEL PARTIES

Pixel parties are parties done online. Using a screencast of a web browser, a webcam, and a mic, users enter a chatroom where they can do anything on the internet together: listen to music, sing karaoke, watch movies, play games.

Recommended but not essential to a pixel party: eat the same foods and drink together. The more you do together, the better the experience (at least in theory).

The point of a pixel party is to get as close to in-person interaction as possible without having to actually be in-person. It’s especially useful for people who live far away from family and friends or people who have online friends. However, it’s still great for those times when you can’t see someone in-person but would still really like to spend some time with them.

One tool I’m exploring to host pixel parties in is Rabbit.


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