Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words to say when you’re in the thick of a blind date or an argument with your boss. Now a new experimental app called Crowdpilot can help guide your conversations by enlisting advice from your Facebook friends, strangers or 99-cent assistants.
The free iOS app, launched Wednesday, allows people to listen in on your conversations using your iPhone’s microphone and write in suggestions for actions, words or conversation topics in (semi-delayed) real time. It’s either a wildly helpful tool, a novel game or a serious invasion of privacy, depending on how you look at it.
In collaboration with the nonprofit arts-and-tech organization Rhizome, Crowdpilot was created in a collaboration between Perceptor and the artist Lauren McCarthy, who sought to both criticize the augmented-reality and social-networking apps that have become dominant, while also exploring the “networked humanity” and “collective wisdom” those apps enable. For the launch, McCarthy set up a bunch of people on blind dates to try the app out and let the world watch via a live stream. Artists Molly Crabapple and Vince McKelvie were two of the guinea pigs. I listened in a bit and was intrigued to hear the same nervous pauses and awkward interruptions I’ve become so familiar with on my own dates.
I thought I’d give it a spin myself. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how to use it, and what it’s like:
1. Download the app here.
2. Open it.
3. Create a login and allow it to access your Facebook contacts and enable push notifications. Then tap Start a session.
4. You’ll be presented with a list of options of whom you can consult for advice.
Behind Door #1 we have Facebook contacts, which is by far the most personal option on the list. This choice requires you to post about the app on your wall and/or invite friends to listen in on your conversation. So unless you’re 100 percent OK with your entire online social circle offering you advice (or you’re Tao Lin), it’s best you skip this one.
Behind Door #2 we have what Crowdpilot describes as “the public,” meaning anyone who has wandered over to this site at the very moment you’re looking for advice. Three things may come of this: You’ll be offered refreshingly objective tips, you’ll be trolled by online pranksters, or your voice will be recognized by an acquaintance and you’ll be discovered (because this brand-new app has only 100 users, and the tech world is a small place).
Finally, behind Door #3, we have five “assistants,” who, for 99 cents, will listen in on your conversation. They’re hired through Amazon Mechanical Turk (a crowdsourced human resources marketplace), according to McCarthy. Though that’s not exactly the first place you’d go for advice about your divorce, McCarthy says, there are “some systems in place for weeding out anyone giving repeatedly poor help.” Since the app isn’t for-profit, the 99 cents you pay is meant to compensate those five people. Seems cheap when you look at it that way!
5. Tap on whichever options you’d like (you can choose more than one). A checkmark will show up to the left of the option. If you’d like to unselect one, then tap its box again. Then tap Select a situation.
6. You’ll be presented with seven options ranging from Date to Family gathering. If your social situation doesn’t match any of the automated suggestions, you can always tap Unsure.
7. You’ll see a warning asking you to confirm that everyone around you knows that your session is being recorded. I’m assuming this is because it’s technically illegal to secretly record people in some states. Nice work covering your butts, Crowdpilot. No matter what disclosure you’ve given, if you want to use this app, you’re going to have to tap Of Course!
8. From there you’ll be prompted to offer instruction on what exactly you’ll need help with in this conversation.
9. The possibilities of your request are endless. I decided to go for something worthy of an eighth-grade LiveJournal entry, you know, as good bait.
10. And then, all the sudden, people started commenting! They began by answering my prompt, but then the whole conversation sort of morphed around whatever I said into my phone. Each time a new message filters in, your phone makes a little murmur noise to alert you.
A few things I and my new anonymous advice-givers discovered together:
For a lot of the people who were listening in, there was a notable delay in audio, ranging from two to five minutes. I’m assuming that has to do with the speed of these people’s Internet connections. Others claimed that the first time the app actually worked was when they joined my session.
You’re not able to see which comments are coming from whom. So unless you work out a signature system with your advisers (as I did), every message looks the same. As one of my advice-givers put it, “I’s strange to be an anonymous part of a collective intelligence.”
Conversely, the advisers can’t see the other comments you’re receiving.
The only real feedback you can give is by swiping a comment to the left and “liking” it or swiping to the right and flagging it as unhelpful.
If you exit the app, your audio streaming will stop.
Here’s a little sample of what people were saying:
If a listener can’t hear you, they’ll click a button to indicate that there’s too much background noise, and a notification will come up on the screen. I tried this from my very silent Brooklyn Heights studio. I doubt it would be very effective in a noisy restaurant or bar, where most dates take place.
Below is what it looks like on their end. They can click on whichever session they’d like to help out with and enter 140 characters of advice at a time. Like I mentioned before, they can see the previous advice they’ve sent, but no one else’s.
If you exit the app to do something else on your phone, the next bit of advice you get will show up as a push notification. I found it difficult to actually access or end my session again after leaving the app. (Not good if you’re concerned about privacy!)
Overall, it was strangely comforting, like I had a bunch of people hanging out in an AOL chatroom with me, but I was the main attraction. Maybe it won’t actually be a tool people use every day, but it’s an interesting Her-esque experiment that allows for anonymous people — body-less, identity-less voices — to forge relationships or get advice. It’s an incredibly freeing feeling, to talk aloud and not worry about being judged or identified. It reminded me of posting on similarly anonymous apps like Secret or Whisper. On the flip side, one of my dear voyeurs put it well: “It’s weirdly satisfying hearing you receive this advice.”
I’ll admit that I did not use Crowdpilot exactly as it was intended. I imagine bringing it along on a date might be a little distracting, since part of the reason we date is to see whether a romantic interest can act naturally on his very own. Not to mention that real-life conversations move too quickly to accommodate a two-minute lag in advice-giving. That lag needs to be addressed: Dates are fragile ecosystems that can collapse with one stray sentence, laugh or pause.
To solve a conflict, however, I could actually see Crowdpilot working. As long as both parties are comfortable taking advice from strangers to gain a little outside perspective on the situation, why not try it? You could respect your advisers’ observations or vehemently disagree. At the very least, you’ll learn something by talking aloud to an anonymous Internet audience, and filtering through the wisdom of the invisible crowd.