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.
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