Future Tense

Sealed With a Thumb-Kiss?

The slightly icky new apps that promise to keep the romantic fire blazing.

I love you with all my phone ...
I love you with all my phone …

Photos.com/Jupiterimages/Thinkstock/Getty Images

Everything about the online world encourages sharing—share your recent purchase on Amazon, share your dining experience on Yelp, share your thoughts about Beyoncé on Twitter. But what about the things you would rather not share with everyone in your social network, such as the cheesy pet name you call your boyfriend or the startlingly high number of romantic comedies your wife forced you to watch on Netflix last month?

There is an app for that. In the past year, several “couples apps”—with names like Duet, Avocado, and Couple—have come to market, promising to “bring the romance back to one-on-one messaging” by creating a social network of two. One leader in the market, Between, launched in South Korea last year and has already been downloaded 1 million times. Anyone who has endured watching couples shamelessly canoodle on Facebook or Twitter should be relieved. These apps promise to do for digital intimacy what the automobile did for analog couples in the 20th century—create opportunities for on-the-go private interactions in an otherwise transparent world. Like the road to true love, the apps that offer to track it do not always run smoothly.

Couples apps are part of a movement away from promiscuous sharing online to sharing more exclusively. Like Glassboard, a social network for small groups that positions itself as an alternative to Facebook, couples apps emphasize privacy, intimacy, and the need to humanize our digital interactions by scaling them down. In the two-person domain of the couples app, no one will stumble across pictures of ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. Sappy messages, flirty texts, and risqué pictures remain safe from the prying eyes of employers or judgmental relatives.

But reimagining the online world as an intimate space can be a tough sell, as Facebook discovered last year when it made intimate sharing compulsive by generating “couples pages” for its users. The pages, whose privacy settings can be tweaked but which cannot be deleted, display everything posted or tagged on Facebook by you and the person you have designated as your significant other. Not all users were happy to see their romantic partnerships curated by Facebook’s algorithms. (“I want to vomit,” one blogger wrote.)

Couples apps have taken several different approaches for marketing their services. Avocado emphasizes convenience by combining many of the ways we already communicate with our partners—text, email, chat, video—into a single app with additional features such as a “send your mood” button and templates for shared lists and photos.

Other apps emphasize the creation and storing of romantic memories and experiences. Couple (an app company formed from the recent merger of U.K.-based private sharing app Cupple and U.S.-based app Pair) offers the opportunity for mutual real-time doodling on smartphone screens as well as a cloying feature called “thumb-kiss,” in which each person places his or her fingerprint on the smartphone screen so that, once aligned, both screens glow red while the phone vibrates suggestively.

All of these couples apps market themselves as technologies for enhancing authentic romantic experience. An advertisement for the app Duet shows unbelievably adorable pairs of people dancing, eating meals outside by candlelight, picnicking, playing chess, and tandem bicycle-riding. In the final image, a man and woman perched on an orange scooter and wearing their wedding clothes, zoom off to their ostensibly happy ending. It is worth noting that not a single image of a smartphone (or any technology more advanced than a light bulb or that scooter) is ever shown, suggesting that these happy couples have used Duet merely to plan the remarkable experiences they then put aside technology to enjoy. I couldn’t help thinking that in real life, the lovebirds would have been tweeting pictures of their dinners or that sunset.

The ad for the Couple app seems more realistic. It features a young man and woman whose smartphones are never out of reach, allowing them sweetly to beam messages and pictures back and forth all day long; they even brush their teeth “together” via video. In a telling moment, when they are shown in-person making dinner, they spend as much time taking pictures of each other and posting them as they do enjoying their meal, prompting one to wonder whether the subliminal message of these apps isn’t the importance of staying in touch with our romantic partners but that the undocumented relationship isn’t worth having. In an age of always on, ambient intimacy, is there still a role for inconvenience in a relationship? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” seems obsolete in a world where you can livestream your boyfriend flossing his teeth every night.

As with any app, there are privacy concerns. The Duet app description notes “Your conversations are saved forever and Duet becomes a digital lockbox for the people and memories you cherish most,” but the company does crack open those lockboxes to third parties that want to send you targeted offers. Deals on romantic dinners or flowers could appear on your screen after a flurry of mutual thumb-kisses, for example. And what happens to your carefully curated lovers’ lockbox when the romance sours? Who gets ownership rights to those digital memories?

Although marketed with gauzy images of love-struck youth, to sustain a user base these apps will have to cater to those well past the early days of giddy courtship. In the early days of a romance, photos and constant messaging form the bulk of users’ exchanges, one of the creators of the Avocado app told Co.Design. With cohabitation, steamy texts give way to grocery lists, and by the time you’re married with children, it’s shared calendars, carpool schedules, and after-school activities lists. Love might be blind, but commitment, evidently, requires spreadsheets.

For those already accustomed to and enthusiastic about documenting their relationships, these apps offer an appealing and more intimate way to do that than traditional social networking sites. A spokesman for Between’s parent company told Venture Beat last summer, “We’re trying to make Between like a symbol of commitment.” But commitment can take many forms, and the unrelenting pressure to be ever and always available to another person isn’t everyone’s ideal. Even though it’s Valentine’s Day, before you succumb to the pressure to download a couples app, remember the warning of a character in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers: As he told his eager, would-be paramour, “You love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And I should die there smothered.”

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.