Mind you, that very scientific conclusion comes courtesy of years and years of anecdotal evidence, not just from me, but from countless friends who have exhausted the deepest corners of OKCupid, or who have swiped their thumbs into fleshy nubs on Tinder. Part of it may be that dating websites are rumored to game the system to keep you single on purpose. But another, more honest lens into dating’s undisputed horribleness could simply be this: We’re horrible at it.
That’s where a new app, Crowdpilot, comes in. How it works is simple enough: While out on a date, you crowdsource real-time advice from Facebook friends, Crowdpilot’s community of users, and/or strangers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program (whose participants earn a nominal fee-per-minute to tune in), as they listen in on your date via your phone’s microphone. (You are advised to disclose this early on in the date.) Then, the community’s “pilots” offer advice to help you navigate the dating world’s treacherous ebb and flow: You’re talking about your cat too much; you’re chewing kind of loud; I think he likes you, etc.
Crowdpilot was created by Lauren McCarthy, a self-described “designer/programmer/artist/person” who lives in Brooklyn. With the help of design studio Perceptor, Crowdpilot was released this week and can be downloaded on iOS today.
Last year, McCarthy subjected herself to a bizarre series of crowdsourcing experiments in which she’d go on blind dates with men, and broadcast it–video and all–to strangers via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program. The feedback she got was surprising–mainly, she says, because the responses she received from strangers were actually helpful. “When I went on a date it was really hard to communicate,” McCarthy told Fast Company in a phone conversation. “This whole crowdsourcing conversation can be surprising. Or helpful. Or interesting, at least.”
Admittedly, when I first learned of Crowdpilot and watched the awkward promotional video, I cringed. Backlash on Twitter was equally swift and unforgiving–as Twitter’s outrage machine tends to be.
But the more I thought about it, the more Crowdpilot makes a weird sort of cosmic sense: 90% of my Gchat conversations involve my friends and me complaining about our problems or soliciting relationship advice. Not to mention, people text message their friends while on dates all the time. Plenty of perfectly smart people turn to Twitter with all kinds of inane questions, like “Where should I go on my vacation?” or “Should I live tweet this couple arguing next to me at Olive Garden?” Is Crowdpilot’s approach really so different?
McCarthy says these kinds of queries tap into the “ambient intelligence” of the crowd, and could even help awkward people (aren’t we all?) expand their comfort zone. “At first it felt really strange,” she tells me. “But as the dates went on, it started to feel more natural, more comfortable. The experience is more nuanced than the one-liner [bills it].”
One counterargument is that stealing away to peer into your phone takes you away from the immediacy–and intimacy–of, you know, human interaction. But McCarthy envisions using Crowdpilot to solicit wisdom in all kinds of situations that, quite frankly, aren’t really that weird at all. “There are cases of people using it when they’re by themselves, like before a date: Should I go buy flowers?Should I wear a bow tie?” she says. “Some people using it in a meeting at work. Real bored, help distract me. It’s kind of cool.”
Scaling will be an issue, of course; a community needs users in order to work. But while McCarthy couldn’t offer me specific user numbers, she says the app has been downloaded hundreds of times. As for why the fierce backlash, I have two theories: 1. Asking for help is, on some level, still seen as sign of weakness, particularly in our over-sharing economy; and 2. turning to a pseudonymous crowd to critique our every move requires that we make ourselves, well… vulnerable.
Crowdpilot is, in a strange way, an honest mirror. At its core, it forces us to consider all our messy insecurities that might be making us undatable in the first place. “It is an art project, but it is also an app,” adds McCarthy. “It isn’t a design piece, or a video provocation. It’s a way to be critical.”
Presumably, she means about ourselves.