I just released my first app! It’s a crazy idea which has been on my mind for years, and I finally got round to making it in 2020. Droppin is an app designed to get you off your phone and out to see people in real life — sort of like anti-social-media: less media and more social.
What’s the problem?
Loneliness and isolation are growing problems. People need friendships, but they don’t happen automatically: we need to build and maintain them. It’s just hard to do that sometimes. Over the last six years or so I kept noticing more and more academics and journalists writing about the social effects of isolation, but giving a diagnosis was far more common that suggesting a solution.
What’s causing it?
We are becoming more lonely. Not just because of coronavirus — it started way before that. We interact with other people through screens and comments and social media rather than in person. But it’s not for lack of time. We have a lot of free time but it’s easier to waste it on our devices rather than with real people.
The reasons why we have ended up in a situation like this are many and varied, and have to do with advertising, convenience, technology, and more advertising. This is not the place to repeat what has been said before, but for a deeper dive into this subject, I recommend starting with the Ledger of Harms produced by the Center for Humane Technology. I am not affiliated with them (yet!) but they do great work and I would be very interested to connect.
The consequences of our growing isolation go beyond individual loneliness to society-level problems, and the causes need to be addressed for the good of everyone.
What do people need?
Real, human connection is something we all need, and you don’t get it through a screen. You need to see people in person, regularly, spontaneously, sharing real life and real experiences.
Spontaneous hanging out is different from social events planned several weeks in advance, and is a very important part of building strong connections. The people that you hang out with regularly without planning ahead are the friends that you bond with over everyday life.
And while it is possible to maintain friendships over the internet, they are qualitatively different from the deep bonds that we make with people we see in real life.
Why is it hard to do that?
We know we need better face-to-face friendships but it’s hard to do it. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of meeting a new friend who you click with, and you might really want to see each other again. Have you ever had someone say, “just pop round any time” or “give me a call if you’re nearby” or “let’s grab a drink next time you’re in town”? It’s a great intention to continue a friendship. But they know you won’t follow up on it. Why don’t we? We think: what if they’re busy? What if they’re not in? What if they didn’t really mean it? We default to the safer option of just avoiding the awkwardness and not visiting our friends.
What do I propose?
What if there were an easy way to avoid that awkwardness and actually see friends in person? Rather than automatically reaching for your phone to scroll through social media, what if you could open an app, press a button to say you’re available, and your friends can see that you’re free — actually free right now — to hang out in real life (or even just have a call — we’re even more isolated than usual with COVID-19 going around now). No more awkwardness about the invitation to “give me a call any time” (but you probably never will). Just a clear indication that your friends are free now and inviting you to join them.
And you don’t have to plan anything special (though you could if you want to, of course). Just do whatever you normally do — have a walk, go shopping, share a meal, have a film night. Include other people in your everyday life.
The app doesn’t do anything else — no other social or messaging functions that keep you on your phone and actually reduce real social time. It’s just designed to get friends together, and then get out of the way.
How does it work?
You would have a group of friends on your phone that you want to see more of in real life. When you open the app, you can see who has said they’re free, what they are doing, and for how long — and that means they have chosen to let you know that. You are essentially invited to just turn up and hang out immediately.
If you don’t see anyone else who’s free yet, you can write what you’re doing, press the “Available” button on your app, and it will show up on the phones of your chosen friends. You are giving them permission to come over and hang out without any worry that you won’t be free.
If you’re not sure what to do, there are some suggestions, like “I’m at the park” or “going into town.” And you set a start and end time because you don’t want people to keep coming and knocking on your door all night.
The goal is for people to spend more time with their friends in person and develop strong connections that can’t be made online. Maybe you’ll get to a point where you have such a good group of friends that they just turn up without going through the app. That would make me very happy.
How did I make it?
I love tinkering. I’m not a programmer — my background is in finance as an accountant — but I’ve always been interested in playing around with code to make my job easier. That got me into a team working with AI and Robotics at my last company, and on the side, I finally got down to work on Droppin.
I mentioned that it had been in my mind for a while. There is an entry in my ‘ideas’ notebook that goes back to 2014 where I started thinking about this, but I hadn’t got round to doing it because I thought it would need a lot of expertise that I didn’t have, or money to hire someone to do it for me (that I also didn’t have).
But in 2020, I took the plunge and taught myself to code apps using Flutter, which can make iOS and Android apps from the same code. Since I’m basically lazy, that sounded good to me, so I got started. After several months of learning curve and a lot of searching round Stack Overflow, I finally had something that is usable.
Now it’s out there in the wild, and I would love to hear what you think of it. You can send me some feedback or ideas at droppin.social/contact.
Q&A (from a real questioner)
Lightly edited for clarity
Q: What does this do that other apps don’t? Some people already use other group chat apps like this too, e.g. “I’m free now, who wants to hang out?” With any social network, the value is the number of your friends that are using it, and the benefits of the platform have to outweigh the costs of “yet another app”.
A: Droppin does nothing but this. It’s not a messaging app with a hanging-out feature hacked on — its sole purpose is to get people to see each other in real life. You can tell everyone you’re free to hang out on any other social media platforms, but that’s not why they’re built, and they often come with user engagement/screen time targets. I want you to use Droppin for 30 seconds or less, then get off your phone.
The number of people using it is definitely a key factor in wider acceptance. So tell your friends about it and get them on Droppin too!
Q: Will the tech address the underlying cultural hesitation to post that you are free to hang out? Even though people could write that they are available on other apps, there doesn’t seem to be great take-up on that. The exception could be for university students, but the environment being a lot more social helps with that. A lot of the time I am free and wouldn’t mind seeing people — but will I want to post on the app? Will I remember to?
A: The underlying cultural issues are hard, which is why I wanted to try tackling it. You’ve got to start somewhere. It would need consistent communication designed to connect the trigger of free time with the action of opening the app. I think this will be easier to achieve with this single-function-no-distraction app than with other services that funnel free time into other activities like texting or sharing media.
The app will send you notifications to prompt you to post your availability during the first week after signing up. You can turn those notifications off of course, but it might be a useful way of getting used to a new habit of inviting people to hang out rather than just scrolling through social media.
Q: I’d question some of your fundamental assumptions with this, e.g. about wasting time on our devices rather than with real people. I’d say that’s true to a certain extent, but you seem to be saying time with the same people online is wasting time. I think COVID-19 has been pushing a trend onward that was already happening: digital presence equalling presence. I’m not saying it’s correct or always correct, but I don’t think we can differentiate between “screen time” and “hangout time” so clearly anymore. They exist in a continuum with each other. It’d be good to see some thinking in this area and grappling with the underlying assumptions and ideas, and perhaps interacting with some research or writing on the topic.
A: Agree to an extent that there’s a continuum of time spent with people in person and online, and it’s not all wasted if it’s not face-to-face. You can use Droppin to invite people to chat online if you like! But I’d be very surprised to hear anyone claim that there is no meaningful distinction at all between online connection and physical presence. If there’s a slight (or major) social or mental health benefit from hanging out in person, then I’m up for trying it.
I’ve been collecting research and studies on loneliness, technology, and friendship in the course of thinking about Droppin. The plan is to get in contact with academics and journalists who are interested in the topic to see what they think, and hopefully get them on board.
Q: Can you see your friend’s location, like some other apps which show you a map of where your contacts are? Does the app collect that kind of personal information about me?
A: No — you only see what they write. If someone chooses to show their status to you and says they’re inviting you to turn up at their house, the assumption is that you know them well enough already to know where they live. I don’t want to collect that kind of information about you. That’s not my business. I want to keep your social life as private and unidentifiable as I can. Droppin doesn’t even know your name — only your phone number.
Q: How do you make money from this?
A: Not sure yet! It’s free to use and I refuse to put ads in or collect more data about you, so I’ve got nothing to sell. I have put donation options in the app and on my website, but they are not obligatory. If Droppin becomes widely used, it will take money to run the server, so a bit of income to cover costs would be nice.
There you have it. Will it change the world? Will it improve everyone’s mental health and make us all best friends? Let’s find out, together. If you want to give it a go, you can get the app on Android and iOS or find out more through my website. And remember to tell a few friends about it too, or you won’t find anyone to hang out with on the app! I hope that if it catches on, enough people will have it already that a newcomer should be able to sign up and see friends on there already, but that is still some time in the future. For now, tell your friends, your colleagues, your family, and anyone you can think of!