Scrolling around Charlie Williams’s new app, Cuddlr — proudly billed as the “Tinder for cuddling” — you get the sense that maybe Williams hasn’t spent a whole lot of time online.
The app, which promises to connect consenting adults for safe, fun, nonsexual snuggling, relies on the same geolocation technology as Tinder, Grindr and their ilk. It also relies on the same core philosophy: That, given the opportunity, people will use their phones to make connections with each other — in this case, unsexy, platonic connections that just so happen to involve lots of physical touch.
That’s kind of where Cuddlr falls on its face. Call it the app equivalent of the popular Internet axiom, Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” It doesn’t matter how much Cuddlr insists the app is for free hugs only — in its seven days in the App Store, it’s already turned to distinctly less PG purposes.
Consider the number of requests sent in the witching hours after 11 p.m. Or the fact that, despite much trying, the Daily Dot’s EJ Dickson could not find a single other lady to hug earlier this week. Or the fact that every Cuddlr user I messaged for this story was in bed, asked for my picture, or both.
When I finally found a suitable cuddle this morning — young guy, normal picture, just a couple neighborhoods away — we exchanged a series of texts negotiating (what I thought would be) a friendly hug. When he asked to see my picture, I sent him a picture with my boyfriend. He was, well … disappointed.
“I’m into the idea of spontaneous, no-strings-attached sex,” he texted back.
So that didn’t work out.
American society has a complicated, and kind of bizarre, relationship with interpersonal touch: It’s expected between sexual partners and family members, but takes on a distinctly creepy connotation between just about anyone else. Williams points out, in his impassioned raison d’etre on Medium, that mainstream America finds it more acceptable to use an app to meet a stranger for sex than to use an app to find a friendly hug. Since hugs are good for you, and carry little inherent risk, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
It also echoes an argument made by the “cuddle party” gurus of the early aughts: “We live in a very touch-deprived society,” the self-proclaimed sex coach Reid Mihalko once said.
But there’s a reason cuddle parties aren’t in vogue today, just as there’s a reason that every Cuddlr user I corresponded with for this story asked to see my picture. Americans simply aren’t conditioned to think of something as physically intimate as “cuddling” in a non-sexual or non-romantic way. (Heck, it’s in the very definition of the word.)
And while Williams’s quest to change their minds on that score is admirable — visionary, even — a geolocation app is self-evidently not the way to do it. People will use a geolocation app for sex, full-stop. And no amount of small print or cautionary help text will change that.
In fact, given the way people already appear to be using the app, the small print almost seems dangerous: with its vague intimation that “a cuddle can be many things” and its refusal to ban users even after someone else flags their cuddle as “inappropriate” — multiple users must make such reports — it’s easy to see cuddlers meeting up with different expectations. (It’s also easy to see lawsuits. Or sexual assaults.)
This is a bit of a tragedy, really, because geolocation — with its unprecedented ability to connect nearby strangers — has so much (platonic!) social potential. I would love an app that could help me meet my neighbors in my apartment building, whom I very rarely see. Or other dog-owners in my area.
Frankly, I would even like an app that connected people who like hugs — literal hugs, and nothing else — because I do think that’s kind of a charming idea. I hugged one of my co-workers this morning after spotting him on Cuddlr. It was nice!
But the problem with designing an app around that type of very fundamental social interaction, I think, is that because the interaction is so extremely basic — a hug, or a “hi,” or a “hey, you live here too?” — it also strikes us as something that shouldn’t require technology. Something only the truly pathetic would do with the aid of an app.
I’m reminded of the protagonist in the movie Her, resignedly writing other people’s love letters — a profession invented by Spike Jonze to show exactly how disconnected modern technology has made us. We’re fine outsourcing a range of personal labors to tech, from laundry to listening, but writing a letter is so easy, so uncomplicated, that it seems to fail some critical test. Whereas modern dating/mating is a logistical nightmare — where to meet people? how to gauge interest? how to wade through the cascade of unavailable, unattractive and otherwise ineligible candidates to find the needle-in-the-haystack for you? — finding a hug is pretty easy. (Unless you have no friends, no family, and no affectionate acquaintances … which brings us back to that core idea that only the socially destitute would rely on such an app.)
It would be nice if our society, and our brains, weren’t wired that way, of course. But while they are, Cuddlr simply isn’t going to see the type of adoption as, say, online dating sites or apps, which 2 in 5 American singles use. Williams is right: Despite the profound popularity of tech-mediated socialization, and the integration of geolocation into most aspects of our technological lives, it’s far more acceptable to use an app to find sex than it is to find just about any other “connection.” Even when the app states, explicitly, that it involves connection of a purely nonsexual kind.
Caveat cuddler: Despite our best efforts, it’s not exactly warm and fuzzy out there.