Technology

A mood app hopes to avoid social media's corporatised environments of self-promotion. By Gillian Terzis.

Vibes app aims to make social media personal again

The Vibes social media app interface.
Credit: SUPPLIED

It may sound ludicrous, but Facebook, in its peculiar way, used to “care” about how you felt – even if its interests lay primarily in the eventual monetisation of our emotions. In 2007, when I first signed up, it would prompt users to update their status by asking how they were. It coaxed them in a way that was innocuous but tantalising: for instance, “Gillian Terzis is …”, and I’d be left to fill in the blanks.

This year, Facebook has begun showing “on this day” reminders in users’ newsfeeds – recollections of past status updates and old photos – but instead of eliciting nostalgia, evidence of my past selves tends to prompt revulsion. The essayist Wayne Koestenbaum described humiliation as “a process of accretion”, which is probably the best way to grasp the full effect on your psyche of trawling through your digital archives. It’s as if my library of excruciating mental replays – crappy jokes, desperate ploys for attention, drunken faux pas – has materialised in digital form, in full view of the public.

These degradations seem small but they are cumulatively self-defeating. It would seem that time’s passage on social media is marked by the accumulation of grievances and petty errors. I’m sure I’m not the only person terrorised by their recent history, by the collision of past and present personas – not to mention the distance between our “real selves” and our idealised fantasies. But while the past haunts us, the contemporary experience is not necessarily much better. As social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter become more corporatised, the naivety and openness of the past has given way to brazen careerism (which is deadening) and blood sport (which is unedifying). It’s a similar story on Instagram where, in the age of curated experiences, we’ve become walking hashtags and preening thirst traps. That’s not to say those things are necessarily bad: I admit to being someone who clings, often pretentiously, to signifiers (a dirty martini, a strategically placed copy of Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov) as a means of self-expression. (Intended message: I’m into a specific kind of fun.) But even for a seasoned social media veteran, the rituals of public performance can be exhausting.

Kate Losse and Amelia Greenhall, the founders of Magic Vibes Corporation, believe social media doesn’t have to be this way. It need not be tiring, nor a mere conduit for validation. Losse, a former engineering product manager, writer and researcher to the CEO at Facebook, and Greenhall, a designer and product developer for a number of venture-funded start-ups, wanted to “create technology that channels the resonance, energy and ease that we want from our social networks”. Rather than replicate the feeding frenzy of, say, Twitter, they had something more calming in mind, which would also capture the spontaneity and comfort that online exchanges can bring.

Magic Vibes is an early-stage, angel-funded tech start-up in San Francisco, founded in August 2014. Earlier this year it launched Vibes, an app that can be used on an iPhone or Apple Watch. It’s part messaging app, part digital jewellery, part visual experience. Text takes a back seat to the washed-out, thermochromic colour scheme. Emoji use is encouraged.  Words or phrases are often bracketed by tildes, the squiggly punctuation mark often used on social media to denote a specific tone (irony, sincerity) or aesthetic (’90s web design), though they can be disabled. The Vibes colour palette recalls the mood rings that were once ubiquitous in hippie-chic boutiques and bong shops. It was no accident that I was overcome by a sense of  tranquillity. Under the “People” section is a list of people you “vibe” with, people you follow, and people who follow you. Unlike Twitter, these lists aren’t visible to the public. You can send a private vibe to a friend, or you can send out an “ambient vibe”, which is like a public status update. Text is constrained to an 80-character limit. And that’s all there is to it.

Vibes, Losse tells me, aims to provide users with a “more diffuse, colourful, mood-based experience”, while also harking back to social networking’s short-lived golden era before the tyranny of personal branding and social media ninjas. But she doesn’t see the app as a competitor to existing social media platforms. “It feels like we are getting to a space where people are moving fluidly across social networks and using many networks, not just one,” she says, suggesting their coexistence is complementary. This is because each network – whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat or LinkedIn – is governed by its unique cosmology.

Vibes doesn’t tally up your “followers”, there are no comments, and no “like” or reblog buttons, which are functions prone to inducing anxiety on other platforms. Its ambience is its chief appeal. It’s relaxing to scroll through the channel of ambient vibes, and reassuring to know you can use it without succumbing to baser impulses. Losse describes the app as “both a return to the basics of social networking – how do you feel, where are you, what’s going on – which has gotten lost in big networks as the big networks have become places for people’s professional selves”.

Stripped of the endless jostling for social status, Vibes does feel serene. For one thing, it’s difficult to articulate a genuine sense of anger with emoji – even the grumpiest faces seem cute – or pastel colours. For another, it’s free of soapbox posturing and bickering, and its embrace of the abstract is unlikely to attract the “influencers” and “thought leaders” of LinkedIn. “It’s fun to imagine social media that feels more like a soft colourful room than just a feed of text,” Losse says. But it’s also a reflection of how digital culture has evolved 
to become more visual. Emojis, for instance, embody 
a hidden argot and meaning of their own, which can be interpreted differently by each user. The joy of emoji 
is derived from cracking this visual code.

In the US, Losse says the early-stage app has broad demographic appeal, with writers, programmers, artists, parents and teens among its active users. It was released in Australia only last month, and though at the time none of my friends were using it, the app lets you send vibes to non-users in the form of a text message. In Malaysia, I sent out an ambient vibe to express my respiratory distress – ~ haze for days ~  – and bookended it with cloud emojis against a violet to grey radial colour gradient. During a lull at work I vibed about my ~~midweek malaise~~~, accompanied by what I thought was a grimacing emoji against a light purple backdrop. (That emoji, I later found out, is frequently misused: it is officially known by the Unicode Consortium as the “Grinning Face with Smiling Eyes”.) Five years ago I would have cringed at the idea of inserting an emoji into a text message; I have gently mocked colleagues who would send emails with a benign smiley face. Today, I would be hard-pressed to recall a day when my exchanges have been emoji-free. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time crafting the right tone for emails, I’ve belatedly realised that wordless forms of communication can express a mood or state of mind more intuitively (and with greater comic effect) than, say, a text message overburdened with surplus exposition.

Vibes was designed with a “wearable first” philosophy in mind, which means it is optimised for technologies such as smart watches. Losse believes advancements in wearable tech could see “the integration of vibes in haptic ways, so you can see them and feel them”. But for now, Vibes “wanted to build for … the Apple Watch to take advantage of that real estate and turn it into a kind of beautiful, momentary piece of jewellery”.

The app lets you wear your heart (or a string of heart emojis) on your sleeve, without the fear of your digital past being dredged up and used against you. That’s not just a relief, but an indication of how incisive the app is in the way it treats the self: as a plural rather than singular entity, a living theatre of competing narratives. Moods, like the app’s vibes, like the self, are ephemeral. They shift on a whim. They are expressive but vague, resistant to cohesive interpretation. Few apps recognise these nuances, but Vibes does. Ambiguity isn’t necessarily an impediment to life, but a vital part of its charm.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Good vibrations". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.