In Hollywood lexicon a meet cute is the serendipitous crash between strangers. Usually a man and a woman, the chance encounter ignites the plot and the ensuing laughter and romance. Jack stumbled upon a wilting Rose moments before she leapt off the (then intact) Titanic. Harry initially met Sally in need of a ride to New York City. And Sean Parker spawned his longtime business partnership with Shawn Fanning discussing computer security in a chat room.
The universe has an affinity for coincidence. So why not cull this cosmic co-mingling through technology? By matching strangers based on similarities and interests, companies like Mr. Parker’s Airtime hope to harness serendipity.
Equal parts Skype and Zuckerberg, with a hint of eHarmony, Airtime hopes to expand and explode the social graph. Where social networks remain remarkably confined to coworkers, classmates and college buddies, people discovery offers a way of interrupting routine by using the gravity of shared interest rather than geographic contingency.
Airtime introduces us to “Talk to Someone.” This novel feature pairs up fresh faces using criteria like interests, location, and acquaintances. To protect against the wrong kind of people (think Chatroulette) and to ensure a healthy amount of privacy (you probably shouldn’t be using this), users remain anonymous to each other until an “+Add” request is sent and an acceptance made.
But isn’t “expanding the social graph” just a clumsy way of saying meeting new people? Aren’t people discovery apps, the ones that tell you if like-minded users are nearby, just a creepy kind of ice-breaker? (Text message: “Hey! My ambient GPS mobile technology is telling me that you are also at this conference, let’s bust open our social graphs together…what’s your name?”)
To paraphrase the Easter egg at the beginning of Fight Club: couldn’t all this be replaced by walking up to a person and starting a conversation?
For the timid and the less extroverted, perhaps this kind of unplugged boldness is frighteningly difficult. But to sell an Apple-esque chatting service as a ticket to whimsical friendship seems misguided. The random delight of misadventure, the kind of accidental spark that we crave in monotonous modernity is precisely the kind of thing people discovery is not. In the process of gaining the digital grip, we simultaneously lose our human touch.
Still, Airtime, Highlight, Foursquare, and the Facebook-acquired Glancee, shouldn’t be seen as digital shields against rejection. That would be too harsh. The concept of social discovery—the exposure to things that fascinate—works quite well. When the discovery aspect turns on cultural and commercial products, as in Pandora, Netflix, StumbleUpon, and Twitter, users are willing to take risks, step outside ready-made preferences and cultivate an authentic taste.
But when the thing that is discovered is not a thing at all, but a human relationship, something like happenstance isn’t fostered. Rather, it is a contrived politeness like the paralyzing inauthenticity of a bad first date.
Marketed as if a bubbly Alexia Tsostis or a BFF Justin Timberlake is just waiting for you to sign on, reality reminds us to expect a sea of woozy, disembodied, unflattering faces. As the editors of the literary magazine, N+1 point out, it is impossible to maintain eye contact using video chat.
In the provocative and much talked about documentary, Catfish, the nether realm of the internet persona is explored. The Facebook meet cute swiftly spirals downward, resembling a strange, perverse nightmare. More than one character realizes that to look at a person’s pixelated flesh is far from gazing into their eyes.
While people discovery may satisfy some urge to connect, the kind of serendipity they promise will rarely be found behind a screen.