Someone else’s private messages: how smartphones turned voyeurism into fiction

Unrd tells a story in real time, through the medium of a mobile phone. 

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For people who grew up in the age of social media, nothing is more painful than watching a scene in a film or television show where characters try to use it. Despite how perfectly acted, critically acclaimed, or well-written a drama is, you are violently reminded that you are, indeed, watching a group of grown people pretend to be detectives by the characters sending texts that read “Talk 2 U L8r”, “Can i c u soon? :-)”, or something equally a relic of early Noughties text speak. No matter how hard they try, few people have been able to put social media accurately into fiction. And social media storytelling has been left, largely, untouched by creatives, with some honourable exceptions

And Shib Hussain and Adam Lowe, the co-founders of unrd, noticed. “We just didn’t think anyone had cracked storytelling on mobile”, Hussain tells me. “If you think of everything that’s come to mobile, it’s just trying to ape [mimic] a previous medium. So if you think of Kindle, it’s just trying to be a book for mobile, so it’s effectively just a pdf. Or if you look at Netflix, you just turn your phone sideways and you’re still watching TV – it’s not really designed for mobile.” Essentially, media is built for other platforms and then made accessible on mobile, rather than being told from a mobile perspective first. 

Unrd (pronounced like “unread”, as you might imagine) is an app that tells stories through the medium of a mobile phone – in that each story is from the perspective of one character’s phone, through messages and built-in social media. The stories are told in real-time, with no option to fast-forward, over the course of several days. Users get messages, see videos, read articles, and listen to voice recordings on the app, just as they would on their phone normally. Each new bit of information adds up to a narrative. For example, in their first story which I tried, Last Seen Online, your phone is transformed into that of a missing girl, and you receive the messages, social media posts, and audio recordings from her friends in the days preceding and following her disappearance. In another, My Last 3 Days, you have access to the phone a social media star who goes viral, knowing she'll be dead by the end of the story. Each story also has several locked messages that you have to use extra "keys" to get access to – all which cost money.

Hussain argues that this largely untouched type of storytelling is inherently exciting because of what we believe most people keep on their devices. “If I was in the same room as you and I was like, ‘Can I read your messages?’ you’d get massive anxiety, right? Or if you said the same to me, you’d definitely be interested in reading mine,” he says (perhaps presumptively). “Because our phones and our messages have so many secrets and hopes and dreams and worries in there that are so personal to us.”

Hussain and Lowe both come from an advertising background, working in brand management and copywriting respectively for several different companies and organisations over the last ten years. This, among other things (see: slightly silly name, implied “disruption” of an untapped market), made me prepare to be disappointed by the app. I fully expected it to be a product made by two businessmen – not a product from the minds of creative storytellers. However, the storytelling is vastly different from any mainstream “fiction” experience. The messages read like real group chats, the Instagram Stories-style videos feel remarkably real, and the pictures are imperfectly authentic, all without caving to that industry crutch of everything looking like out-of-touch adults trying to sound like the teens they’ve never met. The real-time element, too, did add an admittedly exciting suspense in the story, but also created an amount of distance between me – artfully balancing making the app a regular part of my daily life (a clever marketing decision) without it feeling like an unhealthily obsessive part of it.

This was something its co-founders were keen to emphasise. Lowe specifically explained that unrd was built consciously against binge culture, and the app does manage to reflect this well. As a reader, you have no control over when you get the next piece of the story, and so you experience it as though it is actually happening to you in real-time. Messages arrive throughout the day, videos are periodically posted, and stories break as they would in real life. “You can watch a whole series of something like House of Cards in a weekend and you find out whether a character lives or dies just by clicking ‘next episode’,” Lowe tells me. “We wanted to create a story where you go to bed not knowing whether or not characters were going to come out alive or dead… We wanted to create a story that almost brought back real-time tension.”

Unrd’s creative process also differs vastly from your average television or film writers room. Alongside coming up with a story, their team of writers have to build natural time frames for messages to appear, create ideas for photographs, videos, audio messages, fake websites, and are even creating full podcasts to complement their stories. They tell me they often bring in experts from fields relevant to these narratives to add in an extra layer of authenticity.

“We might be doing, like, an undercover cop story and get an undercover cop in to hear from,” Lowe says. “You can tell a story for TV and it doesn’t have to be exactly like you know, real, but when you have someone’s phone, you go through the intricate details that only an undercover cop would know – like the types of messages and things they talk about. It immediately feels more personal.”

Unrd hires writers across a multitude of fields, from television writing to film writing to writing for video games. Hussain says: “We think, ‘How can we take the best behaviours from all of those things?’ So how can we take the deep storytelling of a book, the interactivity of a game, and the polish of a movie and combine those into a new format.” Unrd also hires actors to play these characters (despite their efforts, certain videos and voice messages were somewhat stilted). But although they remain coy about exactly who, Lowe and Hussain say they are looking at “digital talent”, ie YouTubers, Instagrammers, and other social media influencers, for new stories – and have already signed a partnership deal with a “big, big social talent”.

The co-founders also believes that they aren’t just launching an app, but creating an entirely new type of platform, one they call “real-time fiction”, which they equate as its own media format on par with games, books, film, and television. When I ask about the longevity of this type of storytelling, and how the format could, after time, grow tired, Hussain argues: “When someone invented TV, after the first few episodes of a series, people were probably like, ‘Hm, what else is there to do?’ And that’s how we see it as well. We’ve got so many genres that we can do, there’s hundreds of stories in those genres that all make each one feel fresh and different. The advantage here is, without just using one medium, we have voicemails, we have messages, we have websites we build, we have podcasts, all of these are just extra tools that a writer on our team can use to create a really textured immersive experience.”

However, by the founders’ own admission, their genre choice is limited. They believe “tension” is key to the success of their stories, which means they focus on horror, crime, mysteries, and romance, rather than genres like comedy. Their claim to be a brand new type of platform that will grow to the level of ubiquity as those just mentioned may end up being true, but it is certainly premature to claim it now. At the moment, unrd only has three stories available, all circling around the theme of thriller. 

Although I enjoyed the eight-day story Last Seen Online, it did disappoint with a slightly hamfisted ending. The production was good, and rarely felt unnatural, but a last-minute twist left me wondering if the writing team perhaps became too convinced of their own cleverness. However, with only three stories in the works and having just launched this month, things look bright for unrd’s future and have undoubtedly created something innately intriguing. Whether or not the founders will revolutionise fiction as they hope, though, is a story far from written. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.