Can an App Make Staying in Touch Too Easy?

A new tool lets you tell your friends you’re thinking about them with just a tap, “no words needed.”

Three teenage girls sitting side by side on a fountain in Trafalgar Square are lost in their phones
Richard Baker / Corbis / Getty

I’m the friend who hasn’t texted you back yet. Important life-update emails languish unanswered in my inbox. Facebook messages remain unread. I’m even worse at returning calls: Today marks the 28th day I’ve been putting off following up on a friend’s voicemail.

Suddenly, aimed squarely at my basest social flaws, along comes an app called Thoughts. It promises to let me “share [my] thoughts and feelings with friends instantly, without having to make a call, send a text message or write a single word.”

Here’s how it works: The app opens to a blue screen populated with the smiling faces of your friends and family. Tap one of their mugs, and you can choose one of 11 “thoughts” to send their way—they include a smiley face, a sad face, a kissy face, a hang-loose hand gesture. Tap your choice, and the friend gets a notification on his or her phone with the appropriate image. It animates. End of transaction.

In theory, there’s a clear place in my life for this. Without the app: I want to text a friend a link or a video, but remember that I owe them a response to their last thoughtful message, so I make a mental note to send my message, once I have the bandwidth to write a good reply. I promptly forget. With the app: I toss off a quick hearts-for-eyes smiley and buy myself another day before the shame of ignoring the people that care about me sets in again.

But instead of seeming like a convenient way to stay connected, Thoughts feels like it could be a step backward. Something about it crossed a line I didn’t know I had in my head until I encountered the app: The idea threatens to commodify warm feelings.

Several years ago, the author Jonathan Safran Foer wrote an essay for The New York Times called “How Not to Be Alone.” In the piece, he describes the evolution of communication technology as a string of “diminished substitutes” that allowed humans to connect with each other increasingly easily when they couldn’t meet face-to-face. Telephones, answering machines, the internet, text messaging—each new development made it more convenient to say something to someone without being in the same place at the same time. But then, Foer wrote, something changed.

… A funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation—you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

Is Thoughts the logical end to that progression? It certainly isn’t the first platform to promise to connect people with minimal effort. Snapchat, which encourages trading in ugly selfies, fills the same need for quick and easy “thinking-of-you” type communications. We’re quick to fire off emojis, too, instead of a longer message in a text thread—but they don’t seem to have “ruined civilization” quite yet.

I asked Diogo Melo, the developer behind Thoughts, what differentiates his app from Snapchat, Yo, or just sending a brief “thinking of you” text. “What we developed is a fast, one-way communication app,” he replied. “This means that when I send a Thought to someone, I just want that person to know I’m thinking about her, period. It’s not about me; it’s about the other person! So I won’t be expecting an answer back, nor will that person feel the stress and pressure of having to send something back.”

Fair enough. Everyone’s gotten stuck in useless feedback loops long after an online interaction should’ve ended. That “Thanks so much!” email seems superfluous, but not sending it would probably be rude. (Such a message does, however, follow my colleague Jim Hamblin’s golden rule of emailing: brevity.) An update to Apple’s Messages platform lets you slap on a reaction to any text you receive—a thumbs up, a question mark, a “ha ha”—which has the potential to take the place of the “Got it!” acknowledgement text, if I ever remember to use it.

Thoughts already has 5,000 users, most of whom were beta testers until it was formally launched this week. (Ninety-eight percent of the user base is Portuguese: Melo only opened up the app to other countries on Wednesday.) For now, the app makes money by showing ads after users send Thoughts to one another. (I tried multiple times to sign up for the app, but kept running into errors.)

Screenshots from the Thoughts app

Even though the idea for the app made sense to me on paper, I told Melo I was still skeptical. Could it make some friendships feel even more transactional? Would sending a Thought make us feel like we’ve done our friendship duty for the week, without really doing anything at all?

“We are not trying to solve the modern world—it is what it is,” Melo said. “What we are trying to do is giving people a tool that gives them the ability to light up another’s day in seconds, because it really feels good to be remembered.”

In fact, “It feels good to be remembered” is the app’s slogan. I don’t know, however, how good it feels to receive a Thought, never having had the pleasure of being sent one. I imagine it would feel nice.

I’m not here to say that Thoughts won’t succeed, or that it shouldn’t. Every time a new app or platform is supposed to ruin society, it doesn’t; usually, when a new app is supposed to save us, it fails to do that, too.

My first reaction when I saw the idea was that it was a cold, Silicon Valley approach to human relationships. The product video features attractive white people staring out of car windows and unzipping camping tents, and its marketing materials include phrases like “This concept … allows us to be closer to the people we care [about] most, in a simple and immediate way. No words needed.” But no, Thoughts was developed in Lisbon, one of Europe’s booming tech hubs, and Melo, who acknowledges that the app won’t be for everyone, genuinely seems to have conceived of the idea with real relationships in mind.

But the progression of communication platforms that make it increasingly easier to get in touch made me wonder whether it’s time to apply the brakes. As we try to mine the good feelings we get from connecting with our friends with less and less effort, at some point, perhaps we won’t be connecting with them at all—just tricking ourselves into thinking that we are.