I have friends. I don’t know how it happened, and the older I become the more often I think I might not actually deserve them. But I have them.
It’s a strange thing to think of friendship in the possessive. There are no clear rituals to forming a friendship, and the sub-categories people invent for the term—work friend, school friend, best friend, family friend, workout friend—feel fussy and unnecessary. It’s not enough for adults to be friends; there must be types of friendship, a division that always seems to precede abandonment. The category sets the terms for all the overstepping of boundaries that will inevitably come.
This month a new iOS app called Cloak lets people keep up with digital friendship by scraping Instagram and Foursquare for GPS tags to track particular friends, allowing users to strategically avoid any unexpected incursions from office mates while with workout pals. The app will eventually be able to use Facebook’s GPS data and friends list, but for its early versions it chose the smaller and more manageable networks to build on.
More than a practical tool to help with awkward social encounters, Cloak is a good reminder of how fundamentally anti-social the idea of a social network is, built around technology that makes intimacy impossible. There are no facial expressions to soften cold words, no touch of the hand, no breaks in voice, no prolonging of a conversation into the night.
Social networks have become so pervasive that escaping one only leads to another. With Cloak, the illusion that one can control one’s physical interactions with other people is ultimately in service of making social networks seem tolerable at a time when they are becoming ever more contentious and alienating.
Without tracking apps and photosharing, friendship depends on reciprocal exchange of energy and emotion. It depends on the specific response a thought or experience calls into being when shared with another person in the same space.
Cloak uses its social networking data to prevent this exchange from happening. The app makes it a friendship dampening tool that presents a small degree of individual control while acknowledging that most of the people in a person’s digital list aren’t actually friends but a mass of unassembled data points that constantly remind of how uninvested we are in one another.
Social networks have become so pervasive that escaping one only leads to another. With Cloak, the illusion that one can control one’s physical interactions with other people is ultimately in service of making social networks seem tolerable at a time when they are becoming ever more contentious and alienating. If friendship forces us to frame ourselves in another person’s point of view, social networks ask us to frame ourselves from everyone’s points of view, a hell that Cloak allows us to personalize by transforming the “block” command into physical avoidance.
It remains a marvel to me how much I disliked some of my closest friends when we first met. Following many of them on social networks reminds me of how much of them is absent in their pictures and two-sentence missives from suburbias that I will probably never arrive in. I can’t escape how false and dumb those qualities I first reacted to actually are, recoiling from someone because they wore Chacos or had read all the Harry Potter books—people who seemed genuinely shameless about what easy targets their live choices could make them. And it was powerfully humbling to realize that the larger defect was in me to have thought about other people as “targets” to begin with.
It was with a sense of gratitude that I came to fall in love with each precisely for the qualities that I’d hated on first impression, and some sense that I was maybe more than an aloof prig in the corner thinking I had nothing left to learn from the world. In a way, the worst of all possible solutions would have been to opt out of confrontations like these, forgoing the possibility of an individual relationship while saving allegiance for the digital intermediary that guarantees hostile responses based on the least important qualities a person could have.
With Cloak we have entrepreneurial technologists inventing another way for us to remain apart, deferring to standards of prejudice and pre-judgment imposed through math and machinery, entreating us to sever a social limb and think of it as a liberation because we were allowed to choose which limb it should be.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.