On a recent Sunday, a man I didn’t know named Nando woke me up at 8:15. He wondered why I had to be up so early on the weekend, and warned me not to fall back asleep.
I was barely conscious and yet a little bit self-conscious, about how groggy my voice sounded. Just thinking about what someone else might be thinking about me, my brain was already working harder than it usually does in those first moments. One of the things it thought was: This was all part of the plan.
The plan: To find an alarm clock that could actually wake me up. I usually stay up late in my bed working on my laptop and in the morning, I hit the snooze button until the very last possible minute, forgoing breakfast or a shower for 10 or 20 or 30 more minutes of slumber. I’ve tried an app, Sleep Cycle, which is supposed to wake you gently, but it proved a little too gentle. Instead of upgrading to more sophisticated alarm clocks (the one that flies around your room until you catch it, for instance, or the orb that sits next to your bed to monitor your heartbeats), I went back to using a combination of hitting snooze on my iPhone, followed by hitting snooze on my Timex alarm clock.
In search of a new tack, I downloaded an app called Wakie, which allows strangers to (anonymously) wake each other up. Launched last year, it blends the old-timey convention of the hotel wake-up call with the social randomness of Chatroulette. If the best alarm clock is waking up next to someone you don’t recognize, I reasoned, the second best might be waking up with a stranger on the other end of the phone.
In short, Wakie connects “sleepyheads” with “wakies.” The brainchild of a pair of Armenian developers who released their first beta in 2011, the app asks you to set your wake-up time and plug in your phone number. Then at the appointed time, someone else from the app’s community, typically of the opposite sex, will volunteer to call to wake you up; they don’t see your number, and calls are currently limited to a minute. If no one is available to call you, you get a recorded message instead.
But there is a good chance you will hear from a real person, says Wakie: the San Francisco-based startup reports 1.5 million members in 80 countries who have placed over 30 million wake-up calls. Thanks to a recent round of funding from Russian and international investors, Wakie is aiming to take on a global audience of snoozers. (So far, wake-up calls are only available to people in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Singapore, and Hong Kong, though people in other countries can place calls through the app.)
Hrachik Adjamian, Wakie’s co-founder and CEO, told me that the app was inspired by his own love for the snooze button, and his experience working as a software programmer from home for faceless clients. “The only thing that could really wake me up was a call from an unknown phone number. I knew it could be a new client for my business and I had to answer. After a small talk with a stranger I couldn’t go back to sleep. You have to turn on your brain to be kind and answer their questions and then you are too alert to sleep again. I thought that if it works for me then it probably could help other people, too,” he explained.
Adjamian said researchers at universities in the U.K., the U.S., and Belgium are now studying what he calls “the Wakie phenomenon,” or “why do people’s brains wake up better with a call from stranger?” He cites his own in-house research, and offers theories: Engaging with another person, particularly a new person, forces you to think, but also to be kind, to be social, he says. Neuroscience offers more tangible proof: Orexin, also known as hypocretin, is a neurotransmitter that regulates wakefulness and stimulates energy expenditure. Narcolepsy in humans and animals, for example, is associated with low levels of orexin. A study published in 2013 that tested subjects while they talked to physicians, nursing staff, and family members found that orexin levels increased with social interaction.
While Wakie might be the only app putting this idea in practice, it’s not only instance where a phone call is suggested for waking up restfully. Dr. Allison Harvey, director of the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic at the University of California, Berkley recommends a method of waking up she calls R.I.S.E.U.P.—an acronym that stands for
Refrain from snoozing,
Increase activity for the first hour,
Shower or wash face,
Expose yourself to sunlight,
Upbeat music, and
Phone a friend.
There is a difference, of course, between phoning up your best bud and chatting with a stranger. For one, the novelty of a new person may make us feel more motivated. When people look at novel images, researchers have observed activation in a region of the midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental, which is responsible for regulating our motivation and reward processing, along with the brain’s levels of dopamine. When we see new things, we also recognize the potential to be rewarded in some way; This motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. In other words, engaging with a stranger first thing in the morning, rather than a loved one or a friend, could jolt your brain into action with a bit more dopamine.
Of course, like spam or a comment section, calls from strangers can come with their own special creepy baggage. (This may explain why it took nine months before Apple approved Wakie for the App Store.) Talkoclock, a company that offered a similar service, went on indefinite hiatus in 2013 in response to complaints in their community. A similar app from China, Who Will Wake Me Up? (谁叫我起床) says it is planning to implement a “privacy function,” according to TechNode.
Wakie says it has reliable user-data protection, lets users anonymously rate each other after each call, and uses moderators to ban any disrespectful users. Adjamian says these offensive users are rare exceptions: “99.7% of calls are fine,” he says. Adjamian and his co-founder, Tat Ajamyan, are under pressure to maintain those kind of controls as they grow and develop ways to monetize the service. They say they are contemplating premium features, like the option to speak with strangers for up to five minutes and to view users’ profiles after calls are completed.
Adjamian suggests other interesting applications of a call from a stranger. For instance, when Talkoclock was launched in 2011, it was marketed not just for morning wake-up calls but also for other reminders throughout the day, like a crowdsourced secretary. You could get someone to call and remind you to have a salad at lunch or walk your dog after work, or even to go to bed at night. The concept reminds me of Miranda July’s app “Somebody,” where users outsource delivering a message or a hug or anything else they can think of to a stranger within geographical proximity to one of their friends or contacts. The real-life component of July’s scheme might make users feel more accountable and less likely to be creepy; its audience is self-selected for a certain twee-ness. But it’s not that different in its essence from the random connections offered by Wakie, Chatroulette, and a range of apps in the sharing economy, like Lyft and Airbnb.
I’m not sure yet if Wakie can replace my existing configuration of alarms, but I remain intrigued. The other afternoon I returned the favor and woke someone else up in El Paso, Texas. He said it was 11:30 there and not cold at all. I told him it was so cold in New York that our pipes had frozen over. Out of deference to Wakie’s unspoken code of anonymity, I didn’t want to pry, so I could only guess at the people behind these voices. Nando, who had called me, had sounded nervous; this man’s voice made him sound fully present and self-assured. Judging from its timber, he wasn’t older than 27 or 28. After a brief chat, he thanked me and sounded genuinely grateful for the wake-up call. I thought: If, you can connect with a stranger, even only occasionally, in fleeting moments, Wakie’s ambition is much bigger than just waking you up, physiologically. It wants to give you a reason to get up in the morning.