The Hello Machine: Minus and Encounters With Strangers on the Internet

The Hello Machine: Minus and Encounters With Strangers on the Internet

There's an app for just about everything. But can Minus really neutralize awkward social interactions between complete strangers?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)


"Meeting new friends" was one of the brighter promises of the Internet in the 90s, something that seemed plausible with the camaraderie formed in chat rooms and message boards. As these free-seeming spaces were slowly corralled into networks driven by entrepreneurs and investment capital, the idea of meeting new friends online lost its romantic glow just a bit. It's certainly still possible to form friendships through online identities and shared interest, but the environments that support that exchange have become increasingly untrustworthy, and so enthusiasm is tempered more and more by skepticism and mistrust about some catfish trap gliding unseen beneath the digital sodality.

Minus is a new iOS and Android app that aims to return some bit of innocence to the technologically mediated friend-making process. "The idea of saying 'Hello' to someone unfamiliar or a stranger has always been taboo," John Xie, Minus's co-founder wrote on the company's blog. "We hope to change that and help our users build a new level of connection with those around them, through chat and photos." The app is a sort of sexless version of Grindr, using a person's GPS data to detect others nearby who they can send messages or pictures to. 

 

Minus is a new iOS and Android app that aims to return some bit of innocence to the technologically mediated friend-making process.

 

Each user has a rudimentary profile that can be tied to a Facebook account, which organizes a user’s uploaded photos, records the last time they used the app, and how far away they are. In an ideal scenario, you might see a person who draws your interest crossing the street or darting into a cab, send them a message, and hope for friendship to be struck. Or else you might discover a neighbor's photographs of some as yet undiscovered bar or restaurant on your block that gives you a reason to get out of the house for an evening.

It's unsettling to think we have reached a point in American culture where saying hello to someone is taboo. It may provoke anxiety in the person saying hello, but much of this comes not from the inherent social pressure to invent a pretext that doesn't honestly acknowledge why you're drawn to the person in the first place. It's more apt to say the taboo is the part after hello, where one must find a way of not saying things like "I find you intensely attractive and have been imagining kissing you for the last 2 minutes," or "You're wearing the coolest clothes and I want to be friends with you so you can mold me in your image."

The Internet amplifies these bizarre social incongruities more than it smoothes them over. Jokes are passed like pathogens, capturing the absurd truth of people's first reactions to things, a kind of exchange that favors hyperbole and surreal overstatement to sympathy and consideration. Last week a Georgia representative introduced a bill that would make it illegal to use an image editor to add someone's face into an obscene picture without their approval. Rep. Earnest Smith drafted the bill after discovering a writer for the blog Georgia Unfiltered had done just that with Walker's head, pasting him into a scene where he was having sex with a woman from behind.

While the photo is obviously faked and Smith's bill will likely not even be voted on ("He's the conductor of his own crazy train," one of his colleagues told Fox News), it is characteristic of how the Internet makes it possible to translate a passing thought into an actual image, which will inevitably be seen by someone who takes offense. We have control over this process when these images pop up in our daily thought stream where we can evaluate whether to share or not based on company and circumstances. The Internet encourages us to share irrespective of company and circumstances, making everything available to everyone at all times, and in doing so it becomes a place where friends can meet and where they can also become enemies or become victims all at the same time.

In that way, Minus seems like a highly volatile platform, one that opens access to strangers with few limitations. Whether intentional or not, there is something sexually suggestive about the app, with its screenshots featuring young attractive women and only one or two men mixed in. Using the app in Manhattan I found the opposite to be true, with male users outnumbering women by nearly ten to one. This might have been predictable too, as it too often seems men are far more likely to rush into the sheltering arms of technology to express their social curiosity. A recent survey in Psychology Today found that more than 85% of people who posted on Craigslist Casual Encounters were men (59% m4w and 27% m4m).

Technology can offer solutions to social problems, but it also shows us social problems are subject to interpretation, and often those first addressed by technology are the ones most connected to the people driving the technology. Which is how we arrive at the strange point where we require a machine to say hello to one another, primarily intended for people who fear there is something taboo about their desires to say hello in the first place.

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Tags: apps, minus, the-internet
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