Social media for appy couples

By Gillian Terzis
The Saturday Paper
October 29, 2006
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Social media has made promiscuous oversharers of us all. On any given week, across the gamut of social media networks, you’ll come across countless photos of elaborate brunches, 140-character #AusPol treatises and so-called humblebrags about the unlocking of certain life achievements. In no other context is immodesty a virtue. That such behaviour is rife is, however, not that remarkable: social affirmation is valuable currency in an economy of likes, retweets and shares.

Excessive displays of romantic affection and public canoodling, however, tend not to be received so warmly online. A cynical person might cite such behaviour as evidence of overcompensation for a relationship’s flaws, although recent research from Albright College indicates that the opposite is, in fact, true.

As the binary between our digital and analog lives dissolves, it has become increasingly difficult to hash out an appropriate code of etiquette. Adopting what tech entrepreneur Jeff Bezos calls a “regret-minimisation framework” is probably a wise social media strategy for any smitten couple: don’t divulge your partner’s pet name to your entire social network, for example; refrain from using the #blessed hashtag. (PDAs = TMI.)

Tech start-ups have long focused their energies on helping us find “the one”, or at least someone, with apps such as OkCupid, Tinder, Grindr, Blendr and Match. It’s only natural, then, that such attention would eventually be paid to a much bigger challenge: how to make relationships last. In recent years a number of apps dedicated to “private” social networking have come on the market. The most prominent ones are Couple, Duet, Avocado and Between, but a quick visit to Apple’s App Store will reveal many, many more dedicated to keeping the flame alive. Some allow couples to create mini-spreadsheets to calculate the division of housework between partners; others offer suggestions for date nights. There are apps that ward off “bed death” by sending couples push notifications that remind them to have sex.

In 2012, a Korean friend told me about Between, an app that has since garnered significant appeal among young Korean couples. The company estimates that one in five couples uses the app, with 90 per cent of its users based in Asia. In a story in The New Yorker in November last year, Lauren Collins wrote that Between had become a “synecdoche for commitment” in Korea, displacing Facebook’s status of “in a relationship” as a marker of officialdom. Collins wrote: “A boy might once have asked the object of his affections, ‘Do you want to be my girlfriend?’ He now asks, ‘Do you want to Between?’ ”

As technology companies have rapidly colonised our language – we “Google” ourselves and “Facebook” others – it seems almost inevitable that they could colonise our romantic relationships.

My boyfriend and I both downloaded Between and tried to use it as our primary form of communication for a week. The user interface, which is designed almost entirely in pastel shades, allows couples to send text and voice messages to each other, as well as share videos, milestones, calendar dates and memos. Its creators describe it as “a beautiful place where you can share all your moments only with the one that matters”. It’s unclear whether the average duration of a relationship on Between (one year) reflects the age of the app’s user base or their waning commitment to the app itself.

It soon became obvious that Between wasn’t simply a social network for two but a shrine to couplehood. Any shared event, regardless of its banality, was deemed worthy of commemoration. In keeping with Between’s saccharine sentiment, my boyfriend uploaded a picture of us brushing our teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. Between also gives users the option to embellish photos with hokey adornments, such as bows, emojis and hearts. But maintaining this vision of romance proved exhausting, and our dalliance with Between was a short one – we lasted four days.

Between has a growing presence in the Western market but has some way to go to catch up to competition leaders such as Avocado, created by two former Google employees, and Couple. Avocado is so named because its namesake is said to pollinate in pairs. (Fun fact: the fruit’s name is derived from the Aztec word āhuacatl, which means testicle.) Avocado has not released concrete details about its user base to the public, but its press release claims it has had “millions” of downloads and “a ton of crazy, dedicated users”.

Avocado shares a number of similar features with Between, such as the sharing of lists, dates and photos, but it also lets you “hug” and “smooch” your “boo” (to borrow the app’s parlance) by placing your smartphone on your heart and lips respectively. (Somehow the app knows when you are not literally “kissing” the device – I tried to replicate the effect by pressing the screen with my fingers, but to no avail.) Upon doing this, the phone vibrates suggestively, as if to say: a connection has been made. Another app, Couple, allows partners to “thumbkiss”: you can see the other party’s thumb swirl across the screen and, when you touch it, the screen flashes red and vibrates. Both apps offer a form of identity verification by requiring users to create a shared password to log in. Couple also has a drawing feature, which allows the two parties to make MS Paint-like creations. Whenever I used it I couldn’t help but feel like I was regressing to my younger, prepubescent self.

These approximations of intimacy may seem cheesy but I suspect they might have more appeal to those in a long-distance relationship, although getting both partners on the app to draw or thumbkiss at the same time would require some unromantic pre-planning.

But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss technology’s influence on human intimacy. University of Melbourne academic and social media commentator Lauren Rosewarne says that “a couple who is geographically separated can still feel an intimate connection with their partner even in the absence of physical touch”. Dr Alexandra Solomon, clinical psychologist and course teacher for Northwestern University’s Marriage 101: Building Loving and Lasting Relationships, agrees, saying that these apps could allow couples to “be creative about how they maintain their connection when they are not together”.

When Facebook first launched, there was the sort of fear-mongering that tends to accompany society’s jittery lurch towards hypermodernity. Countless commentators fretted that online friendships would replace human contact. But for many, the internet’s ubiquity is not necessarily detrimental. In a way, these technologies augment our real-world interactions by ensuring that communication is constant and fluid. Gchat exchanges and email correspondences can be as heartfelt, intimate or as throwaway as any face-to-face conversation.

For some, the more they talk to someone online, the more they’d like to see them in the flesh. But others may feel differently. “I worry about the couples who use [these apps] as an escape or an avoidance of actual intimacy, of actual hugs and reminiscing with one another,” says Solomon. She sees the value in these apps “as an adjunct … a way of keeping in touch over a long work day”, but cautions against substituting it for face-to-face communication.

Still, too much routine can be deadening for relationships, and it is likely that being constantly available to your partner could prove exhausting. There are apps specifically aimed at this dilemma, too. BetterHalf, which is powered by review sites such as Yelp, gives couples ideas for “date nights”. WeSync offers a reward system for those who make their partner happier. The Sexulator records your bedroom stats, ranks you for good measure, and offers you the option of sharing your prowess with your friends. (Note: no one wants to be a “sex turtle”.)

As Rosewarne says, monogamy is not necessarily “inherently boring, but for some couples it becomes that way”. Technology, she says, can help couples broaden their sex life by “connecting with others physically or simply in fantasy”.

But most couple-focused apps tend to reinforce a very strict definition of what the parameters of an intimate relationship can entail. New academic research suggests there is no difference in the levels of satisfaction of couples in monogamous and non-monogamous arrangements, Solomon says. “We’re getting some interesting suggestions that we’re being a little too rigid and narrow-minded about the complexities of love.”

And those complexities are unlikely to be solved by technology alone. Virtual kisses are hardly a substitute for the real thing, and they are even less likely to resolve deeper conflicts, or alleviate the feeling of being stuck in a rut. But using these apps needn’t diminish the quality of one’s “real-life” relationships, either.

The biggest obstacle for the developers of these apps may well be one of market share: private messaging and photo-sharing functions already exist in Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp. They may absorb the market for the couple apps before the purpose-built apps really get going. And in the not-too-distant future, as a result, it’s not unforeseeable that social media etiquette will one day deem “relationship oversharing” to be publicly acceptable.