A relationship is a way of being separate together. You’re closer to one person, both physically and emotionally, than you are to anyone else in the world. There’s nothing like staring dumbly into your lover’s eyes from a nose-distance away after mind-blowing sex. It’s thrilling.
But it’s also kind of banal—we all stare into each other’s eyes the same way. Most couples spend more time apart than together, and that creates a problem with many possible solutions: how do you stay connected when you’re not in the same room?
If you’re thinking there should be an app for that, someone beat you to it. I just finished reading Lauren Collins' piece in the New Yorker about Between, a couples’ app that’s taking the young lovebirds of South Korea by storm. Between is “a beautiful space where you can share all your moments only with the one that matters.” It’s a social network for two that lets you exchange voice and text messages, share photo albums, and deposit digital keepsakes into a skeumorphic 'Memory Box.'
Instead of communicating with your partner on the same channels you use to pay bills, answer work emails, and call your mother, Between provides a private sanctuary for lovers to relax into their best selves. Ideals like transparency and monogamy “are embedded in its structure…the design of the software nudges users to constantly express their love.” Collins talks to couples in Seoul who used Between as “a sort of personal trainer for their love lives, reminding them of their commitment, and cheering them on when they reached their goals.”
So far, Between has mostly taken hold in the Asian market, but the company has said it plans to open a US office soon. When it does, it will have a cadre of American-bred couples' apps to contend with: Pair, Cupple, and Avocado are just a few of the companies leaping into this hot new market.
It’s easy to see the appeal of a dedicated space for couples’ communication. It seems that each of my relationships has required greater negotiation of the digital, and sometimes I miss the simpler days when I didn’t have to think so much about how to connect. Back in high school, everyone talked to their boyfriends on the phone; I talked to mine so much that my parents got me my own line. Today, I can count on one hand the times I’ve talked to my boyfriend on the phone. Instead, we weave a communication cocoon of disparate threads: texts, gchats, and photos of things with private significance.
In the trenches of digital communication, the biggest landmines are lack of tone and immediacy. As anyone who’s ever waited for a text message or tried to parse its meaning knows, increased connectivity can translate to decreased clarity and responsiveness. And so couples find idiosyncratic ways around the limitations of digital communication.
This probably explains how emoticons came about. It’s hard to convey tone in a text message, and a little smiley face goes a long way towards softening things. That’s fine, but emoticons aren’t really my style. In my own relationship, I proposed an alternative solution: punctuation added to curt replies would be understood to convey warmth of tone. Now, when my boyfriend sends me a ‘no’ or ‘okay’ with a period at the end, I know I’m speaking an intimate sub-language of our own invention, one made possible by technology.
Digital communication may not be perfectly suited to romance, but little hacks like this abound. I know of one couple that uses the Find My Friends app to avoid having to exchange lots of annoying logistical texts. A side benefit is feeling more connected to each other throughout the day (sounds a bit creepy to me, but it works for them).
In one past relationship, my boyfriend and I developed a series of acronyms to deal with feelings of neglect endemic to digital communication. If one of us said something funny or important that we felt the other had overlooked, we wrote ‘AKG,’ for ‘acknowledge.’ If we felt the other’s attention had wandered on gchat, we wrote ‘SIM’ for ‘stop ignoring me.’ Plainly demanding, these acronyms got the message across without taking themselves too seriously. Eventually, they became a game: we tried to communicate in acronym as much as possible, challenging the other to guess our meaning. If I was waiting for him to meet me for dinner, I might text ‘HUIH’. I knew he understood if he replied in kind: ‘COIC’ (‘Hurry up I’m hungry’/ ‘Chill out I’m coming’).
Between does away with the friction that gives rise to these kinds of quirky workarounds. The makers of the app have their own notions of what communication should look like in a relationship, and they inflict it upon their users. It may sound benign—who doesn’t want their boyfriend encouraged to show more signs of affection?—but it removes much of the joy of building your own unique communication system. Handing over control of that system to someone else is like deciding to move in together to a hotel. There’s a maid to make the bed, the toilet paper is folded into a perfect triangle, and Thomas Kinkaid paintings adorn the walls—but isn’t figuring that stuff out for yourselves the whole point of moving in together?
Not to mention that your new home is likely under constant surveillance. Between promises to create a private space for just the two of you, but actually provides the opposite: exposure to an unseen audience of advertisers, marketers, and who knows who else. And with the illusion of privacy, you’ll probably reveal more than you would have on Facebook or Twitter, when you knew all your friends were watching.
It’s not that I think technology encroaching on our love lives is bad—the acronym game, for example, enriched my relationship. But certain technologies are bad, so we should evaluate each with care. It doesn't always makes sense to solve problems with so-called seamless solutions; when it comes to dating, the process of problem solving is what’s most valuable.