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25 June 2020

Finger on the App: the dystopian competition that sums up everything that’s wrong with the internet

It's a gruelling and almost certainly futile contest to see who can pay the most attention to their screen. Why does that sound familiar?

By Will Dunn

On Tuesday 30 June, thousands of people will open an app called Finger on the App, press their fingers to the screen and wait. Many will give up after a few minutes. Others may wait for hours or even days, unable to do much but wait and pay attention. One of them will win some money, although they won’t know how much – this will be for their fellow players to decide. 

Almost 20 years ago, a similar idea was played out live on British TV. One Sunday evening in March 2001, a million people sat down across the UK to watch Dale Winton explain the format for his new game show, Touch the Truck. In a shopping centre next to the M25, contestants gathered around a new Toyota SUV to see who could keep their hands on the vehicle the longest. For 81 hours and 43 minutes, the contestants stood, bored out of their minds, until they were picked off by sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and despair. Most viewers switched off without bothering to find out how it ended and the winner, if you could call him that, immediately put his new car up for sale (he used some of the proceeds to stand against Ed Davey in Kingston and Surbiton in that year’s general election, and won just 54 votes).

Many at the time saw Touch the Truck as reality TV’s lowest point. The writer and Black Mirror creator, Charlie Brooker, has said that it made him stop satirising TV, because there was no point in parody when the real thing was so ridiculous. Cheap, cruel, abject in its consumerism and mind-numbingly dull, it was reality TV reduced to its most basic components. 

The same could be said of Finger on the App, which takes the endless, pointless contest for eyeballs that dominates the internet today and boils it down to its simplest mechanics, trading the uncertain promise of money for the thoughtless attention of the moving finger. In doing so it holds up a mirror to an internet on which attention – in the form of bulk traffic, shares and likes – is the main currency. It asks how much of human communication has become, like Finger on the App, a demanding and repetitive game.   

It is made by a US company called MSCHF, which turns viral ideas – a dog collar that “translates” barks into swearwords, trainers made with holy water, an AI that texts people pictures of feet – into absurdist art-products.

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“When you get down to it,” the developers write in the game’s manifesto, “every iPhone game says only: move your finger like this.” The game “boils down phone use to its minimalist core”, demanding “utmost devotion” to the screen. It asks players to consider whether the hours they spend on their phones – 48 per cent of young Americans say they are online “almost constantly” – are a game, or a system that compels them to press the screen long after they have stopped enjoying the experience.

Though only available in the US, Finger on the App is already the country’s most popular free app. It has been reviewed thousands of times, despite the fact the game itself does not start for another five days. The reviews suggest that most users do not see the game as a joke at their expense. The same could be said for much of the internet.

It is a game with one winner and thousands of losers, and each time someone “loses” – by taking their finger off their screen – they get to vote on how much money, up to $25,000, the winner should get. 

This mirrors the attention markets of social media, in which a small number of people are able to cash in on a game that almost everyone else pays, with their time, attention and money, to play. And these winners can themselves be brought down by a sufficient quantity of meanness on the part of everyone else. 

If the winner of Finger on the App finds they have been left penniless by the crowd, they will be little different from the companies which spend billions advertising to people who don’t exist and the real people who pretend they’re being paid to advertise products. These are the ultimate customers of the attention economy, the people who forfeit their time and money for the ultimate digital product: zero.