Just because messaging options abound (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, the list goes on) doesn’t meant it’s any less embarrassing to advertise in a status update that you have nothing going on. And if you do decide to ask a few friends to hang out, who wants to get embroiled in a never-ending group chat?
That’s why Danny Trinh, formerly a product designer for Path and Digg, created Free–an app aimed at making hanging out easier. In the tradition of early chat services like AIM and Gchat, Free uses a colored dot to designate whether a user is “going out” (green), “flexible” (yellow), or “busy” (red).
“I used to live on AIM,” says Trinh–one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in Business in 2012. “What if there was a way to say who’s ‘green’? In real life, are you free?”
The colored dots allocated to Free users is just the top of the social funnel, Trinh says. The app is also for making plans: Free allows users to quickly start group chats that are joinable and “leave-able.” Participants can elect to leave at any time or invite other friends (even non-users) to chat simply by tagging them. A “like” feature next to chat responses turns into an in-app polling system–the hangout location with the most likes is tallied in the app, for instance. Once a spot is decided on, a user could quickly drop a pin on a map inside the stream. There’s also the option to drop meme-like selfies directly into a chat without leaving the app for the camera function.
Trinh says an earlier version of the app automatically started up a smartphone’s camera each time it was launched, offering users the option to create a short and shareable looped video. But the feature was clunky for a simple location-sharing app, and problematic for users who might be answering a Free chat from bed or another private place. So Trinh spun the photo-sharing aspect of Free into a separate app called Cap. (Free still allows users the option to share photos into the chat stream.)
If it seems like Free is just an amalgamation of other messaging apps, it’s because, well, it is. No one feature is totally new, and common attributes like statuses, chat, and “likes” have simply been reconfigured to remove barriers to plan-making. But by encouraging people to hang out in real time, Trinh says he hopes to avoid what Jenna Wortham has coined as the “success theater” of other social apps.
“Most people only share for the approval of others. Saying you’re ‘free’ is a request for companionship, and it’s not performing well on traditional platforms,” Trinh says.
With Free’s fun interface, he hopes people have better friendships IRL.