Mar 24, 2014 · 4 minutes

The idea that consumers want to easily communicate with everyone they know during every waking moment is being questioned by messaging services, anonymous platforms, and now an app called Cloak that grabs data from Foursquare and Instagram to help users avoid people.

Think of it as the opposite of people-finding apps like Highlight that encourage interactions with other people in your general location. Instead of finding those people and making it easier to connect with them, Cloak makes it easier to take that same information and use it to avoid interacting with friends and family users would rather not see at the moment.

These services might seem unrelated, but they all hearken back to the early days of the Web, when people went online to interact with like-minded individuals hiding behind pseudonyms, or to communicate with a few specific friends instead of everyone they've ever met. Messaging services allow consumers to stay in touch with a handful of people; anonymous platforms let them share secrets without fear of reprisal; and "antisocial networks" help them stay alone.

There's something liberating about not having to worry about your identity or relationships while communicating online. I used to frequent a mildly popular video game forum where I posted under a series of pseudonyms -- each more ridiculous than the last -- far more often than I have ever shared something on Facebook. The relationships I formed on that site were real, but they were also limited: severing them was as easy as deactivating a single account.

In a sense, anonymous platforms like Secret or Whisper recreate that anonymous networking, while messaging apps fill the same role email did before it was overcome with spam messages. Using Cloak to avoid family and friends isn't much different from being hunched over a keyboard while an ancient monitor projects its blue-white glow onto everything in front of it.

That isn't to say these services aren't without their problems. Juggling messaging apps can be frustrating, anonymous networks too often devolve into harmful gossip mongering, and deliberately avoiding friends by gathering data from other social networks is simultaneously creepy and misanthropic. But in a world where everything is communicated in public instead of in private, and where anyone can bother anyone else whenever they wish, it's easy to understand the appeal of services that allow their users to not worry about those things.

Reactions from around the Web

The Washington Post notes the appeal of something like Cloak:

[Cloak co-founders] Moore and Baker insist their work is more a legitimate tool than a parody, though there’s certainly plenty of room for both in the relentlessly pleasant realm of mainstream social media. Facebook users have, notably, called for a 'dislike' button for years — yet so far, they only get variations on 'like,' 'heart' and 'fan.' In Facebook’s world, there’s simply no space to be anything less than 'friends' with everyone.

Maybe Cloak better mirrors actual human nature: social … but not infinitely so App Magazine editor-in-chief Nick Jones tells the BBC that apps like Cloak are gimmicks:

'It does sound like a gimmick,' he said. 'But I might use it myself!'

He suggested that these niche apps were being developed not because of any great consumer need, but because developers are keen to corner some of the few remaining untapped social-media markets.

'People are having to diversify their apps and find some unique angle to their app, and then try and sell it to Facebook and make a pretty penny.' Wired UK reports on Cloak's expansion plans:

[Moore and Baker] plan to continue developing Cloak, telling they'd like to expand the idea to include some other social services 'to really flesh out the map'. They're also looking to incorporate some new algorithms that can '...determine where your friends are even when there's no location data at that moment, like 'Nicholas eats brunch at Bubby's every Sunday. Try this other place to avoid him.''
The Guardian points out that Cloak's users aren't happy about the lack of Twitter or Facebook support:
Early reviewers on the App Store aren’t impressed, with Cloak currently earning a two-star rating. 'What no fb or twitter, waste of time then,' suggests one disgruntled downloader. 'Nice idea... but no use unless it includes Facebook and twitter,' claims another.
Pando weighs in

Carmel DeAmicis wrote about the appeal of anonymous and ephemeral communications in February:

Of course this generation would crave the ability to erase their social movements as soon as they happened. But what we didn’t expect was that they wouldn’t be the only ones. Few could have predicted that a seemingly inconsequential picture messaging app would keep spreading, slowly creeping into older generations and other groups, much like Facebook. It turns out that in this case, ephemerality would be the common denominator that attracted the masses to a communication tool.

Ephemerality removes consequence and weight, makes each message less important, and allows it to be more silly and playful. It reduces the significance of an 'online' action and therefore gives the user a lightness of being, a fluidity of identity. [illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]