There were two social networks that blew up in the past week whose founders weren’t quite ready for all the attention. The first was dark horse, anti-ad application Ello. The second was a “creeptastic” app for finding someone to snuggle with — Cuddlr.
While the former blew up because of a legitimate need from the LGBT community to protest Facebook’s real-names policy, the latter seems to have exploded because of its unusual premise. The question that bounced around the InterWebs, from Time to The Washington Post was, “What insane person would volunteer to spoon with a stranger?” Answered shortly thereafter by “only a really creepy one.”
It’s easy to make fun of an app without giving it a shot. It’s a little harder to summon the courage to try it. It’s a social experiment masquerading as a tech service, and someone needed to get to the bottom of it.
You can see where this is headed. I cuddled with a stranger in the name of “journalism.” Or something. I sacrificed myself on the altar of really awkward new encounters, just for you, dear readers. I wasn’t the first to consider it — writers at The Washington Post and The Daily Dot gave it a shot. But neither could find a match because they both had boyfriends, which repelled the potential cuddlees.
I’m single, so that wasn’t going to be an out for me. This was one of those situations where being a reporter spurred me to try something I would’ve been curious about but wouldn’t have had the guts to try otherwise.
Cuddling on a regular basis satisfies a very basic human need. For all the benefits of my single lifestyle, I certainly miss hugs, head scratches, big spoon-little spoon, and the other moments that make you feel emotionally connected to another person. The idea that I could order that, instantaneously, via an app the same way I might order my dinner or transportation is appealing as much as it’s unsettling.
It’s the ridiculous byproduct of our socially networked society, but there’s something compelling about it. That’s why it went viral and everyone from The New York Times to The Onion pondered Cuddlr. Are we really willing to rely on an app to facilitate something as vulnerable and intimate as cuddling? And what does that say about our relationship to technology and each other?
That was the question I set out to answer, and my Cuddlr experience was just as weird — but also far more sweet — than I imagined it would be. Here’s how it went down.
Cuddlr’s welcoming screens.
Is this a hookup app masquerading as snuggles?
After a day spent requesting matches with other cuddlees, I had struck out. Although people connected with me on the app, when it came time to actually meet up everyone wimped out. One person just responded, “This app is ridiculous.” Another sent me his number but said he was out of town.
It’s understandable. Although online dating apps — and Tinder in particular — have conditioned us to overcome the awkwardness of stranger interactions, it’s a whole separate story to get physically intimate with said stranger. Furthermore, the app didn’t offer any information about proposed cuddlers — just their names and a small picture. Not enough people have used it for “cuddle rankings” to appear.
But then I heard from Monica*. She messaged me later in the evening and once I shared my number we started SMSing to get to know each other. A lot of winky and smiley face emoticons ensued. They had a silent subtext: “I hope you’re not a serial killer! :)” “I hope you’re not either! ;)”
I was relieved that the first person who actually wanted to meet up was a woman. I’m a straight female, but the idea of curling up with a dude I had never met freaked me out. A chick seemed way more safe.
That is, until Monica told me I looked very attractive in my picture and asked if I wanted to sleep over. In the span of 0.5 seconds my worst suspicions were confirmed: This was a hookup app masquerading as cuddles. Even the women weren’t looking for a little human connection sans sex.
At this point I was regretting my oh-so-brilliant story idea, but I was in too deep to back out. I refused to be the chicken in this scenario. So, instead, I set some boundaries early, said I wasn’t looking for sex and I wasn’t spending the night. She called me “doll” and readily agreed, and the date was set. I chugged some wine, caught an Uber to Monica’s place, and texted my colleague the address. I gave her explicit instructions: If you don’t hear from me in an hour, call the cops.
The app doesn’t provide many directions, so the users have to figure out the how, when, and where of cuddling for themselves.
My user profile and the screens of Cuddlr users I could request. We pixelated faces and unique names to protect users’ privacy.
The logical, if extreme, conclusion to our on-demand world
The creator of the app, Charlie Williams, told me he didn’t want to run the risk of “over-explaining” things to the user. But he admitted that he might have erred on the side of too little direction.
He was a little horrified to hear I had gone straight to someone’s house, and told me he thought it was “common sense” that you should meet up and cuddle in a public place a few different times before going home with someone. “I was trying to not be an overbearing parent, but I think I need to be a little more of a guiding hand,” Williams said. I had contemplated a cuddle in the park, but the only thing more awkward than the idea of spooning with a stranger was the idea of spooning with a stranger in front of a whole bunch of other strangers. But that’s where I misinterpreted the app founder’s intentions again.
“People assume you always have to be really pressed up against someone,” Williams said. He pointed out that there are other ways to “cuddle” that preserve a person’s personal space, like lying head-to-head or having a side hug.
I actually feel a little bad for the man. These are the kinds of feedback and user confusion the company would have been able to work through slowly, if it hadn’t accidentally blown the hell up. The app just launched — in what Williams thought would be a very soft launch — Sept. 18.
Williams wrote a Medium post on what caused the company to build the app, and much to his surprise Salon decided to write about it. The rest is history, with The Huffington Post, MTV, and the rest of the Internet piling on. As a result, Williams has had one week to fix bugs, manage an influx of users — 152,000 downloads so far — and start figuring out what needs to be changed about the app. It doesn’t help that he hasn’t raised venture funding yet and was planning on working on this part time. That approach went out the window after Cuddlr went viral, and he quit his job as a contract app developer Monday once he started fielding calls from Silicon Valley VCs.
Cuddlr represents the logical, if extreme, conclusion to our on-demand world. People have made jokes about Tinder being on-demand sex, but Tinder doesn’t show you the exact intersection where the person is located. With Cuddlr, parts of the experience progress exactly like ordering an Uber. A map appears with each person’s whereabouts and the time it would take to walk to each other — a map you’re not warned will appear, by the way, creating some major privacy issues. When someone requests you for a cuddle, there’s a ticking time clock counting down the minutes you have left to decide whether you want to join them before the request disappears — 60.
When you’re matched with someone, a real-time map populates with both your locations, and you can send a message to them.
I knocked on Monica’s door nervously. It will go down in my life as one of the braver things I’ve done. If I hadn’t been in it for the story, I might have split and run in that moment. Her dogs yipped, their nails skittering down the hallway, and the door opened an inch. A squinting eye peered out at me. “You’re not a serial killer, are you?” Monica said with a smile. “Not the last time I checked,” I replied.
She swung the door open and invited me in. Her carpeted, cozy one bedroom studio felt homey, and her happy, leaping dogs provided a much welcome ice breaker.
We cracked beers and hung out in the kitchen for awhile, chatting with relative ease. We talked about life, and what led us to the Cuddlr app — she lost a close family member last week and was looking for something to take her mind off it. We talked about safety and security and the city, and she confessed that she checked the rooms in her home every night with a gun before she went to sleep.
There’s nothing you want to hear more when meeting a stranger you’re going to cuddle with than that they have a gun. I had never actually seen one in person, aside from on a cop’s holster, so she led me into the bedroom and took it out from its hiding place, discharging the holster before teaching me how to aim. As I held its weight in my hand, I thought, “I am the world’s biggest idiot for walking into a stranger’s home.” Sure, I had set up a safety system with my colleague to call the cops if she hadn’t heard from me, but a lot could happen before that.
Cuddlr creator Williams agreed when I told him about it later. “That sounds terrifying,” Williams said. “You should meet up in person and have one of the many types of cuddles that preserve your personal space. That is the best way to manage the risk of cuddling with a new person.”
Herein lies the problem with an app like Cuddlr. Whenever you match strangers up for a liaison — any kind of liaison, be it transportation, exchanging of goods, a temporary room rental — you’ll find risk.
Uber drivers abduct passengers, Airbnb visitors destroy homes, Craigslist buyers kill sellers. It’s inevitable that something scary will happen at some point. And an app like Cuddlr, focused on a physical encounter, is far more of a rape or murder trap than all the other stranger-danger apps I just mentioned. Is Williams terrified of someone getting hurt?
“If that happened, I’d be devastated,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t think the proper approach to that is to never take risks. Living involves risk taking.”
The missing ingredient is touch
The rest of my hangout with Monica was sweet and uneventful. After she taught me how to hold a gun — awesome — we spooned on the bed for awhile. I was the big spoon, in case you’re wondering. I petted her head, later she massaged my shoulders. It wasn’t too awkward, although it wasn’t the most comfortable situation I’ve ever been in.
I survived my first Cuddlr session and escaped unscathed. It was both more fun and just as weird as I thought it would be. Am I glad I did it? Definitely. Would I do it again? Mayyyyybe? If I’m being honest with myself, probably not. It’s like bungee jumping — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I don’t regret but wouldn’t rush to try again.
And therein lies the contradiction in today’s world. We’re connected to everyone everywhere, with interactions with strangers or friends available instantaneously, from tweets to texts to newsfeeds to Snapchats.
But the missing ingredient, that the web can never provide, is touch. The way someone smells and sounds and looks in person. That inexplicable chemistry that determines how two people react to each other, whether they’ll become fast friends or avowed enemies, lovers or mere acquaintances. The need for in-person connections is so strong that even anonymous apps like Secret have seen the emergence of meetups among users who aren’t content to leave their bonding in cyberspace.
Cuddlr purports to fill that gap in our connections, but it subverts the natural human inclination to protect ourselves. In this case, I don’t think technology can solve the loneliness of the human condition.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of my fellow cuddler.
Related research from Gigaom