Still, I do not immediately delete WeCroak, and by the fourth week, I begin to enjoy its company. Trembling with nerves before giving a talk to a group of strangers, I get a ping: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” What’s a little public speaking next to the terrifying finality of my inevitable demise? Soon after, I’m at a friend’s wedding, sulking about an impending deadline, when WeCroak again reminds me, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” I loosen up, finish my champagne, and opt to enjoy myself. With each day the app sounds less like a Hobbesian warning—“Life is short”—and more like an Oprah-esque affirmation: “Life’s too short!”
The simplicity of WeCroak also begins to charm me. This is not an app on which I can linger. It has no feed, no option to browse previous quotes, no way to procrastinate. (The only button on the app, “About,” repeats what users already know: This is WeCroak, and it sends you five quotes a day.) Bergwall and Thomas contemplated adding other features, such as links to learn more about the quotes’ authors or a sliding scale to decrease the frequency of notifications. But they ultimately nixed everything beyond the basic template in an effort, Thomas told me, to “disengage people as quickly as possible.”
Despite buzzing me five times a day, WeCroak comes to feel less obtrusive than the other mindfulness apps on my phone. These apps are meant to be an antidote to Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram—the sorts of digital media that, according to my Calm meditation coach, are creating “an epidemic of overwhelm.” The irony is that although mindfulness apps promise to help us disengage from our devices, they also have incentives to keep us tethered—and they use many of the same techniques as the Facebooks of the world.
“Our community generates more meditation minutes than any other app,” boasts Insight Timer, sounding distinctly un-Zen. That app automatically displays an activity feed (“Karen is meditating to Sacred Journey of the Shamans Gong”) that exploits our innate desire to socialize and distracts us from actually meditating. Calm, meanwhile, emails me every few days to say, for example, “Christi from Calm” is “here to support you on your mindfulness journey”—a tactic, called an “external trigger,” meant to nudge users back to the app. Headspace conditions users by rewarding consistent meditators with adorable animations, such as a pink brain doing push-ups, that reinforce desirable behavior. All of these apps incorporate a “streak” feature that, by tracking consecutive days of meditation, taps into users’ competitive drive.
WeCroak, in its inability to do anything besides a single, highly specific task, offers a model for designing software that respects our attention rather than inducing glassy-eyed scrolling. So many online services try to hook us through what Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist, has called a “bottomless bowl” of content—auto-play videos and clickbait and continuously repopulating feeds. (I profiled Harris for this magazine in 2016.) “What if we designed devices for quick in-and-out uses, not endless interactions?” asks Harris’s nonprofit advocacy organization, Time Well Spent, on its website. The result might resemble WeCroak.