September 30, 2013

Why Distraction Apps Matter

I haven’t called my parents in weeks and it’s been great. I hate talking on the phone and I know I’m not the only one. Why? It’s a terrible way to communicate: The audio quality is poor, calls drop, and its fidelity of expression is limited to our words and tone of voice.

Plus, calling is intrusive. Unexpected interruptions demand control of our busy schedule. The ring of a phone is the equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. Miss a call? Prepare for further phone-tag interruptions. Once you do connect on the phone, it’s often a time-suck. We’ve all been dragged into a 30-minute, drawn-out conversation. Sometimes it’s damn difficult to politely end the call.

Despite the deficiencies in this legacy technology, the phone is still perceived as a more intimate and respectful form of communication than mobile messaging. But should it? Today’s mobile devices are equipped to enable new expressive ways to interact. Yes, selfies and stickers are silly, but does that make them less meaningful? We should respect new forms of communication rather than discount them as less important, pointless distractions.

How “Distraction Apps” Create Real, Lasting Value

Earlier this year I downloaded MessageMe, a mobile messaging app, and created a group named Hooverville, being that my last name is Hoover. I invited my mom, dad, and brother. Since then, not a day goes by without communicating with my distant family back in my hometown.

Best of all, we communicate in a whole new, fun way. We banter, tease, share videos, snap selfies, and vandalize each others’ faces as one does when given these tools. Even though we rarely talk on the phone, we’re more connected than ever before since I moved out of the home years ago.

Last month my bro beat my dad by a single stroke:

My brother began creatively decorating his new home:

And they buried our 16 year-old yellow lab (RIP, Lucy):

These modicums of communication may not be particularly important but collectively they bring the family together and strengthen our relationship.

Small Problems First, Big Problems Later

There are far too many startup haters criticizing entrepreneurs for solving “small” problems. “Why not eliminate world hunger? Homelessness? Cancer?” That’s the refrain from these folks.

Yes, these are big problems. But not everyone is equipped with the skill set or intrinsic motivation to dedicate their life to these issues. Before judging the entrepreneur, consider your perspective. Do you know their grand vision? Have you spoken to the users of their product to understand how it’s shaped their lives? As Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund famously states in its manifesto:

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

There are obvious, pressing problems in this world but recognize that even toys can change peoples’ lives and better humanity. On its surface, MessageMe and other consumer products might look like a distraction, a waste of bits and talent. But in reality, they may achieve much more than what’s on the surface, improving peoples’ lives on a daily basis.

Many of today’s most transformative products began small. This is for good reason–lean development makes it more likely a project will survive and thrive, and not become a victim of its own overly ambitious scope. Big ideas are best reduced to their most parsimonious forms in order to reduce the time to market, adapt to user feedback, and lower risk. Sometimes the proverbial flying car starts with 140 characters, whether its founders know it or not.

Cut Lean Startups Some Slack

Facebook was born as Facemash, a Hot-or-Not-like site for rating Harvard students’ attractiveness. Since its humble beginning, it has grown to more than one billion users, connecting friends and family across the world.

Twitter was mocked as a pointless app for sharing one’s breakfast, lavatory routine, and other menial updates. In reality, it is so much more. Twitter has become a new communication protocol and a source for breaking news, enabling information to spread faster and more widely than ever before.

The Nintendo Wii is quite literally a toy yet it brings generations together by making video games more accessible. It is often found in elderly homes, promoting healthful activities and in some cases, combatting Alzheimer’s.

More recently, Whisper, the anonymous secret-sharing app, has been criticized as “just another photo sharing app” that encourages kids to bully and engage in lewd behavior. Nearly every product can and will be abused but those that truly understand and observe the interactions on Whisper will discover its true purpose–a community of people sharing and empathizing with each others’ deepest insecurities and emotional issues. Millions of users express challenges with depression, loneliness, religion, politics, sexuality, and other vulnerable topics. Whisper is their outlet to cope with these topics privately. A similar misunderstanding lies in the story of Tinder, the dating app. As Paul Graham has said:

People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them.

We may one day add Google Glass, Fitbit, Medium, Snapchat, and several other nascent products and technologies to this list, proving critics wrong. Ultimately, history will be the judge but as I evaluate startups and products, I am reminded that even the unsuspecting “distractions” can indeed change the world for the better.

More Writing by Ryan