The Outsourced Lover

Why an app that reminds you to text your partner might not be the best idea
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Robinson Meyer

If you’re looking to add a digital spark to your relationship this Valentine’s Day, you can download the new app Romantimatic.

Romantimatic will send you scheduled reminders to contact your significant other and give you pre-set messages to fire off. The pre-set messages include simple, straightforward classics like “I love you” and “I miss you.”

Or maybe that doesn’t sound appealing. It sure doesn’t to me. In that case, I recommend you follow my lead: Take a solemn oath before the Greek god Eros and vow to never, ever go this far down the outsourced sentiment rabbit hole.

If my warning rings hollow and you believe—like a writer over at Wired does—that the app is a valid “last resort,” keep in mind Romantimatic offers its own recommendation. It comes loaded with a single but highly revealing “pro-tip”: “Maybe don’t mention that you’re using an app to remind you to express your affection.”

Nothing says ‘here are my deepest and most sincere feelings’ like a warning label highlighting the scheduled and mechanical nature of ‘your’ sentiments! So perhaps also you shouldn’t use the pre-set message that contradicts it and states: “My phone told me I should tell you that I love you.”

If you’re in my corner, on the other hand, and find the service morally suspect, be heartened by the fact that we’re not alone. Others are also off-put by the digital ventriloquism. They see it as a romance killer and a test for “failed human beings.” They wonder whether such a shallow service is a spoof, art house project, or prank. Over at Elle, the gendered assessment renders a clear verdict: Guys deserve more credit than being viewed as so oblivious that they need an app that prompts them to say nice things.   

To be fair, the app’s creator, Greg Knauss, has good intentions. A devious designer might have created this type of app to help people manage and exploit multiple partners at once. Each dupe, then, would be tricked by a tool used to con them into believing that a causal relationship is deep and monogamous.

Knauss isn’t like that. On his long-running blog, he’s provided reasonable arguments for creating Romantimatic. Responding to critics, he depicts digital prompts and pre-written scripts as ideal tools for counteracting two tendencies that can impede social interaction: unreliable memory and selective focus. 

On the oops I forgot it again front, he writes:

You attach software to the expression of romantic love, and some people are going to see it as cynical. We’ve wrapped code around almost everything in our lives, but deeply felt emotion is still supposed to be start-to-finish analog. You don’t put your anniversary on a calendar, because it means you’re a bad person who doesn’t care. Except it doesn’t. It means you want to remember it. Your calendar is a tool and it helps you do the things you want to do. I see Romantimatic in the same light. If you’re not good at something and want to get better at it, a tool can help. Tools make things faster and easier and more reliable.

On the I’m so busy I almost forgot to breathe front, he states:

[T]he app was basically written for nerds. These are my people. The whole notion of being so over-focused that an entire day goes by is basically nerd canon. Plus, nerds are used to using tools, especially digital ones. They’re comfortable with it. They have entwined software deep into their lives, and like it that way. Beep boop beep, nerds! Greetings!

In the end, Knauss asks critics who see Romantimatic as a tool for automating insincerity to revisit two assumptions: Does technological mediation really lead to alienation? Must behavioral crutches stunt character development?  

The presumption appears to be that using Romantimatic to prompt you to send a message to the love of your life automatically makes that message insincere. That if you need to be reminded, your love is somehow broken or false or meaningless. That’s what I don’t get. For people who deeply love technology, its effects and its impact, this one tiny corner case — a few dozen bytes of notification text — somehow makes me an overly-mechanized jerk. The app has also been called a crutch, which I totally agree with. If you can’t walk very well, crutches are really, really handy. Maybe you’ll use the crutch forever, or maybe it will help you get to where you need to be, to walk on your own. But that doesn’t make the walking or the destination insincere.

Krauss’s points aren’t totally baseless. Presumably they’ll resonate with people like himself who seem to need remedial help being socially mindful. They might be a godsend for folks who deeply wish to connect with others but who—perhaps for neurological reasons—find themselves unable to without external assistance. But for most adults, what Knauss calls crutches are better thought of as social training wheels that are being used for way longer than is appropriate.

We treasure being in love because loving relationships attest to more than compatible chemistry. Intimacy and trust are cultivated through skill and commitment—attunement to someone else’s needs and desires and a capacity to meet many of them through independent action.

There’s no shame in recording some special, easy-to-forget events on a calendar. There’s nothing wrong with soliciting advice from friends and family as to what type of a gift your partner would prefer for some occasions. And under some circumstances—like when you’re trying to avoid a nasty fight—it is perfectly fine to get advice on how best to word a sensitive point.

But these moments of dependence on others for relationship management—of both people and things—should be the exception.

If they are the rule, your character is impaired. Serious questions need to be asked about why that’s the case and how often you’re behaving inappropriately.

Romantimatic in action

Think of it this way. Imagine you’re walking with a friend, come across a dog, and your friend says: “I really want to kick it!” Horrified you explain why violence towards animals isn’t acceptable. Your friend nods in agreement but then expresses concern that he’ll forget your advice the next time he sees a dog.

Yes: You could solve the problem by creating an app that identifies animals and sends reminders not to harm them. But that solution would not address why your friend lacks basic moral common sense, nor would it help with analogous cases. What if it turns out your friend feels the same way about kids? Or the elderly? How many behavior-modifying apps are needed to supervise his life? While the person who needs a tool like Romantimatic isn’t morally callous, I do wonder how well they respond to other social situations that require conscientiousness and caring.

And while sincerity isn’t synonymous with constant originality, there’s a world of difference between uttering clichés because they spring to mind as good expressions and narrowing your focus to a restrictive list of pre-selected phrases, sentences, and emoji. Simply put, someone who regularly speaks in clichés is a bore, and someone who just signs their name at the end of mass-produced cards displays minimal interest in the correspondence. Someone who passes off clichés that other people find salient, however, is worse—they’re a plagiarist. Little better to pass off lovely clichés as an adult than to be the kid who writes thank-you notes by cranking out nearly identical versions that differ only with respect to the names of the addressees.

The situation changes, but still remains fraught, if users delete all of Romantimatic’s pre-sets and come up with their own list of shorthand communication they’ll send to romantic partners at a later date. Users will then be deceiving. When people in close relationships receive texts, they expect the content to be newly generated.

(I suppose if a couple decided that that’s not how they’d go about texting, we would be in different ethical territory. But at that point, there’s little reason to use apps like Romantimatic. Basic shorthand could do the trick.)

I really did make that pledge to Eros I mentioned at the top. I made it after trying out Romantimatic on my unsuspecting wife, who didn’t know I had the app on my phone. She responded to the pre-installed message—“My pants just vibrated and I thought of you.”— with, “That’s weird.”

What’s really weird is that Romantimatic style romance may be a small sign of more ambitious digital outsourcing to come.

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Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.

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