When Your Smartphone Gets You Off the Sofa

The newest and most popular apps actually encourage users to venture out into the real world.

The best jokes in the opening episode of Daniella London Dekel’s new television series, “Mother’s Day,” were based on a comedy of errors. The main character, Ella ‏(Keren Mor‏), is convinced − and as a result also persuades her husband, Moshu ‏(Dror Keren‏) − that a cell phone app that brings men together for the purpose of quickie dates is actually designed for meeting female butchers. The amusing mistake, which is based on the similarity between the words “meet” and “meat,” as well as the word “itliz” ‏(butcher shop‏) as an expression for the singles market, leads the straitlaced couple to a meeting with a muscular man; the only meat he’s interested in is the skinny body of the stunned Moshu.

The fact that the episode was aired in prime time attests to the fact that London Dekel succeeded in conveying the way most viewers regard date apps ‏(at least when it comes to apps for men‏): They serve as a kind of “sex Twitter,” a simple and accessible technological device for those seeking sexual encounters without commitment or emotion. This image is based mainly on the success of Grindr, an app that connects men with other men, based on geographical proximity determined by their mobile devices ‏(a geolocation app‏). Last June, the founders of Grindr announced that the app, which was officially launched in 2009, has attracted four million users in 192 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan and, you guessed it, Israel.

But the possibility of bringing people together on the basis of location does not have to start and end with sex. A new trend is emerging of apps that are trying to turn technology from an end into a means, and to remind surfers and users that there is an entire world out there. The New York Times recently described the trend as “the future of start-ups.” The writer, Anand Giridharadas, noted that the digital market is flooded with dozens of apps that try to exploit technology in order to get users to go out into the fresh air: MeetMoi ‏(a straight version of Grindr‏); Yipit, which every day offers new deals for courses, wine tastings, social events and a large number of other activities designed to convince you to leave the screen; and Feelday, a start-up of Israeli entrepreneur Gidon Coussin, which tries to get parents to link up with other parents in their area and organize joint activities for the children. And these are only a few examples.

The impressive success of MeetMoi, which today has more than four million users, attests to the need to transfer romantic activity from virtual surfing on dating sites like OkCupid to the real world. In the friendly explanation on the MeetMoi website, users are invited to discover the moving story of “Sam” and “Jamie,” he a young and handsome graphic designer, she a film producer with hipster glasses. Because they are tired of the ordinary and oh-so-boring people surrounding them at work, they download the new dating app to their cell phones and open a profile. Later, when Sam goes to buy a suit in Soho, he gets a message on his phone informing him that Jamie’s office is nearby. The two are asked whether they are interested in chatting, and minutes later they arrange to meet in a cafe.

According to the philosophy of the brains behind MeetMoi ‏(needless to say it’s three white men, graduates of departments of technology and business administration in leading American universities‏), the main problem with dating sites is that they encourage their users to spend hours in front of the screen instead of forming social ties in the real world. In other words, for all the trees in JDate you don’t see the forest, and the result is frustration that is fertile ground for inferiority complexes and unhealthy obsessions ‏(How many users saw the profile? How many made contact? How many wanted to go on a date?‏).

MeetMoi, on the other hand, is based on adrenaline and on the implicit promise that we deserve to live a more exciting life than the one we live in front of the screen. The world is full of funny, good-looking, well-to-do and emotionally stable singles, and if we only open a profile and walk around outside a little, we too can get to know them.

A non-virtual community

The Achilles’ heel of this agenda is that most of the location-based dating apps ‏(such as Local Singles or Find a Date‏) work on the assumption that love is a simple algorithm. According to the example in the introductory page of MeetMoi, if Sam likes to eat in Jamie’s favorite Brooklyn restaurant, there’s no question that they’ll have something to talk about in the next two hours.

In fact, the chances that a match between two people based on a “favorite film” or “hobbies” will lead to a stable and long-term relationship are similar to the chances that you’ll board a bus and meet the love of your life there. And even if there is a certain logic in the desire to bring together two singles with similar areas of interest, the attempt to make the dating experience in the digital era “spontaneous” or “natural” is very far from being spontaneous and natural.
Every “chance” encounter requires a cell phone, a quick response to the notice about a potential match who is in the area, an ability to charm and captivate someone you’ve never met before in a chat of two to three sentences, and the need to find a place immediately, before one of you changes your mind − all these are liable to turn the entire experience into a nerve-racking ritual instead of an exciting urban experience.

On the other hand, MeetMoi is only one example of a location-based app that begins on the screen and ends in a cafe or a street corner. The approach of Feelday is more successful. With the help of attractive design and a relatively simple menu, every parent is asked to define the “family mood” on that day ‏(adventurous, relaxed, sporty, curious‏) and to feed in the ZIP code where he or she is located in order to receive a long and up-to-date list of possible activities in the immediate surroundings. On the website’s home page, users are asked to “Log on, reveal your family’s mood, then unplug and venture into your community.”

This approach hints at the future of offline apps: not only to bring singles together, but to try to return to a more communal and cooperative life, in which every family has a support network of other parents and children in the neighborhood, and not only of parenting sites on the Internet.

With all due respect to the social mission, the future of offline apps depends on their business model, which is based largely on a paradox: These are sites and services that are meant to encourage their users to finally turn off the computer or put aside the cell phone for a few hours, and to meet new people at a cafe, in the street, in a shopping mall or − heaven forbid − outdoors. But this objective means less time spent on the site, fewer pages viewed and a negative effect on the other indexes that enable advertisers to assess the business potential of websites and apps. In other words, how can one maximize digital profits by means of the exalted goal of unplugging people from life in front of the screen?

The need for such apps stems from a backlash against the feeling that technological development has brought all of us into a social whirl that it is hard to leave − an almost total blurring between “work” and “free time”; hours on end in front of the computer that interfere with our biological clock and don’t leave time to meet new people; and unbridgeable gaps between social anxieties and obsessive addiction to networks such as Facebook or Instagram.

The main fear is that offline apps are liable to duplicate and intensify this feeling instead of solving it. After all, with MeetMoi we can’t move a meter without our cell phone, and we have to be ready at any moment to abandon our boring lives in favor of a random date. In other words, instead of spending fewer hours inside the virtual persona we have constructed for ourselves with great effort on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter, we are asked to display this persona openly and with full self-confidence at any given moment.

Will the present trend of location-based start-ups that call on us to go out and play help to turn the alienated digital world into a “global village”? Or will it also turn our nondigital relationships into short and arbitrary ones, like aimless surfing on the Web? As in every other instance of technological changes, in this case, too, it is very hard to predict the future.

App-y days
Eight apps that will drag you away from the screen

1. AROUNDME Are you getting bored outdoors and want to return to the computer? Stop! This app will display innumerable attractions that surround you, from restaurants and bars to films that are just about to start.

2. FEELDAY Define your family’s mood and enter your ZIP code and you will immediately receive dozens of suggestions for spending time with the children, based on your location, the weather and your personal preferences.

3. MEETMOI Develop a profile online, and the moment you are near a single with a similar profile you will get a message to your cell phone that will enable to you to begin chatting and make a date in a nearby location.

4. YIPIT Brilliant in its simplicity, this app collects particularly attractive deals for you every day in your area of residence − from a free yoga class to making braids, at market-breaking prices. The main thing is that you get off your chair and spend some money in the real world.

5. WHERE TO? An app with an especially attractive user interface: a kind of “wheel of fortune” that enables you to choose a field ‏(culture, education, shopping, business, trips‏) and receive an immediate recommendation for your next destination.

6. FOURSQUARE One of the most popular location-based apps in the world, which arouses our sense of adventure by means of the obsessive need to report to the world where we are at any given moment. And home, needless to say, is not exactly a desirable location.

7. YELP Another very popular app that has become a mandatory download for any food lover. The app enables you to find restaurants in your area and to get absurdly detailed information, including surfers’ recommendations, pictures of selected dishes and more information that enable you to make an educated decision before your next meal.

8. SONAR A Big Brother-style app that shows you at any given moment which of your virtual friends is in your immediate surroundings ‏(based on their location on social networks such as Facebook, foursquare, etc.‏). In addition, you can find interesting people you don’t know who are in your area, under the heading “Potential friends.”