Facebook reshaped how we think about identity online. By tying our virtual self to the name and face on our driver’s license, it introduced accountability to our interactions on the site. At the same time, Facebook helped along a greater transformation that was already happening all around it. Just like so many of today’s digital tools, it further decentralized and delocalized our social lives, allowing us to connect with people across the country just as easily as those across the street.
On the surface, it’s easy to see Slight as yet another repudiation of that first phenomenon. It’s an anonymous social app, just like Whisper and Yik Yak, ostensibly pushing back against Facebook’s insistence on linking a username with a face. To hear its creators talk about it, though, Slight actually has more to do with that second big trend. Instead of helping us talk to people wherever they are, its ambition is to give us new ways to communicate with people in our immediate, physical vicinity. Put differently, it’s the rare social network that cares less about who you are than where you are.
There’s not a ton to it. Upon opening Slight, you’re instantly taken to a map view of your surrounding area. There’s no sign-up or login whatsoever. On the map, pins designate virtual conversations that happened at those locations. You can peruse messages left anywhere in the world, and affect the size at which they’re displayed by giving them either a “plus” or a “minus” vote, but every message you send gets attached to your location at that instant. The other thing: If someone leaves a message within a 40-meter radius of where you’re standing, you get a push notification. As a result, Slight is kind of two things at once: It’s a location-based chat app when there are other users around, and a sort of spyglass onto other anonymous conversations around the world when there aren’t.
The app was built by Jon Nash, an artist, and Michael Petruzzo, a developer, both based in Los Angeles. Nash, who hails from London, has long been fascinated with the way digital tools inform and influence real world behavior; one of his recent artworks examined how youth subcultures in Marrakesh use YouTube. An app that seeks to add a dash of virtual complexity to face-to-face interactions, then, isn’t as much of a departure as you might imagine.
The concept was born out of a familiar scenario. Nash was sitting in a dreadful presentation and found himself wondering if the people sitting around him were thinking the same thing. He had tools that would let him broadcast his gripes to nearly everyone he’d ever met, but there was nothing specifically for lobbing up his observations for those nearby.
In that instance, what Nash sought was a backchannel for discussion. But by using location as its sole organizing principle, Slight inevitably becomes different things at different places. At a cafe, it might be tapped for leaving an off-the-cuff review of a particular drink order. At the park, it might be used to flirt with someone sitting a few blankets down. At a recent cookout with friends, Nash said, the chef used the app to let people know the hot dogs were ready.
As its creators see it, that sort of mutability is what makes Slight different from many of the other anonymous apps that popped up in recent months. “It’s context,” Nash explains. “These aren’t message-in-a-bottle statements, like, ‘Oh I want to leave my wife.’ They’re not autonomous, they’re relative. They’re relative to the bar you’re in, the restaurant you’re at.”
When you base functionality on proximity, however, network effects become a significant factor. You can’t flirt with that dude in the park if he doesn’t have the app. Nash and Petruzzo say they’ve accumulated some 15,000 users worldwide at this point, and they’ve already formed a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. to serve as a venue for discussion there.
Currently, they’re trying to work out what other sorts of locations to target, using some home-brewed algorithms that look at density and smartphone use in various urban areas. They’ve also sought guidance from Richard Cooperstein, Facebook’s former head of international development, to help them with their roll-out abroad (They’ve recently seen a spate of messages in Russia; one was posted from inside the Kremlin.)
Still, even in the early adopter mecca of San Francisco, my phone never once beeped with a nearby message in the week and change I’ve had the app installed. For Slight to become a real-time layer on top of real-world interactions, reaching that critical mass of users will be crucial.
As Nash sees it, though, the broader goal is simply to facilitate conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise. In some instances, that could mean establishing a thriving proximity-based backchannel, but in other cases it’s simply about making a space for a dialogue that might play out over weeks or months. One early posting at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles points out that none of the works on display from the permanent collection were made by women.
“Now, that’s a conversation that Getty can’t avoid,” Nash says. “It’s literally pinned on the building.”