Are phones making us bad friends?

Photo courtesy of ronbennetts / flickr

I’ve been a terrible friend, and my phone is mostly to blame.

The realization came a few years ago when my now-wife and I were compiling the guest list for our wedding. After putting together this list of the most important people in my life, I was struck by how long it had been since I’d actually spoken with many of them.

I was spending hours a week on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and in some ways I felt more socially connected than ever. But not all of my friends use social media. And for the friends who did (especially those in another city), I knew all about beautiful vacations, decadent meals, and new outfits, but not whether they actually liked their job or were happy in their relationships. It was so easy to read updates, I’d gotten lazy about reaching out and talking on a regular basis. I’d become a terrible friend.

I want to spend more time on the people in my life who matter the most, not just the people who share the most.

In retrospect, it’s clear how this came to be. Social networks make money by introducing us to paying brands, so the more connections we make, the better for them. This broad set of connections makes for really engaging experiences and powerful self publishing tools, but it also normalizes our relationships — we end up interacting with friends the same way we interact with Beyoncé or Doritos™. And, more importantly, these addictive apps aren’t counterbalanced by technology pulling us in the opposite direction — something actively encouraging us to have intimate conversations with the friends and family members we truly care about.

Social networks encourage a growing number of superficial connections, at the cost of our few, meaningful relationships

In April, I tried an experiment. I built a simple Android app called Stitch to remind me to talk to the people I love on a regular basis. The app monitors my phone calls and text messages and resets automatically whenever I talked to someone on my Stitch list (since nothing would be more annoying then getting a notification to call your mom right after you got off the phone with her). Set it and forget it — Stitch only pipes up when my actions fall short of my intentions.

So far it’s working. I talk to my grandfather about 2.5 times more often than I did before. My best friend from high school and I now text on a monthly basis, instead of waiting to hang out when we’re back home for Thanksgiving. I even manage to talk to my sister, who I’m very close with, twice as often as before.

That said, timely nudges aren’t a magic enhancer for all my relationships: I still don’t call my lovely aunt who lives in New Jersey. The app has some unintended side-effects too: I text message a lot more now (instead of e-mailing or instant messaging), because I subconsciously know those messages “count” automatically in Stitch.

Obviously “talking more often” is not the same as “having a meaningful relationship,” but it’s a step in the right direction. And I appreciate that my phone is actively encouraging me to be a better friend, not just a consumer of social content. I still use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and they’re amazing products, but hopefully this is a space where new apps begin to evolve.

As of a few weeks ago, Stitch is a fully funded project within Samsung Accelerator. I’m looking for talented Android / full-stack engineers in NYC to join me on the next stage of this adventure — e-mail me for details!

(You can also sign up here for updates on how the adventure unfolds.)

Thinker, tinkerer. Formerly platform @foursquare. Mostly harmless.

Thinker, tinkerer. Formerly platform @foursquare. Mostly harmless.