Sex spreadsheets and thumb kisses: inside the world of couple apps

App designers have conquered dating, and have moved onto the world of coupledom. 

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Technology, depending on your point of view, has “transformed” or “ruined” dating. But now, it looks like a new generation of apps is aiming to do the same for couplehood.

“Couple”, formerly “Pair”, is an app founded in 2012 and marketed to, you guessed it, couples. It’s essentially a messaging app which connects you to only one other person, and also allows you to send doodles and – brace yourself – “thumb kisses”, where you press your thumb to the screen, your partner does too, and both phones vibrate.

There are a myriad of other apps offering something similar. Between, a Korean couple messaging app, allegedly has 14 million users worldwide according to its iTunes store listing. And Buzzfeed has compiled a toe-curling list of apps offering to do everything from resolve an argument with cartoon avatars on Fix a Fight, to take sex “to the next level” using virtual board game Bliss.

The Spreadsheets app, rather horrifyingly, “analyses movement and audio data to give you statistical feedback on your performance in the bedroom”, because, according to its marketing materials, “love and tech speak the same language”. “Kouply” lets you send points to a partner whenever they do something nice for you.

The spreadsheets app. Image: Spreadsheets.

In a way, it’s not surprising that app designers are trying to gamify relationships and sex, just as they’ve gamified the first stages of dating through swipes. But as with all apps, most of these options seem gimmicky, rather than the next Tinder or WhatsApp. While couples may keep quiet about their couple app usage, for fear of seeming smug, the fact that none of these apps sound familiar has to mean something.

Interestingly, though, Couple in particular does seem to be used in a serious way – it has been downloaded around 3 million times around the world, which isn’t a huge amount, but users have sent 2 billion messages between them, implying user engagement is high. When I asked people in long-term relationships, a fair proportion had heard of it – one said, unprompted, that she had “kissed thumbs” before but “it made me feel a bit sick”. A search on social media turned up two couples who used or had used it seriously.

Tom*, who works in the media, uses it to speak to his fiancé who lives abroad, and tells me that the download “was triggered by the long distance thing – we were looking for ways to make it less traumatic”. While the app’s one-on-one USP inspires intimacy, it can also protect your privacy by cordoning off your messages from other apps. “It’s easy to add in a separate passcode, and it’s clearer to people that they’d be intruding if they read messages in there rather than texts or WhatsApp messages,” Tom says. He and his fiancé also draw each other pictures and make lists on the app.

The thumb kiss function and a couple's messages. Image: Couple.

Harry*, who works at a charity, also used the app to contact his boyfriend when they were living in different places. “We downloaded it originally so we wouldn’t send any messages or photos that could be perceived as inappropriate to other people accidentally,” he says. Since it only allows you to contact one person, “it also kept a sort of timeline of all your messages together, which is nice to look back on”. Now the two live together, they don’t use it anymore – though the thumb kiss is apparently “amazing”.

Couple seems to have done what the best types of communication technology do: taken the speed, convenience and adaptability of online communication and tailor it, in this case for couples specifically. Notably, it doesn’t promise to change or improve your relationship, but just allows you to contact each other in privacy and in creative ways.

Happy Couple, a new app which promises to improve your relationship by asking you quiz questions,lies at the other end of the spectrum. Each day, you each answer five questions about your partner and yourself (essentially, the “how well do you know your fiancé” game beloved at hen and stag dos), earn points when you guess correctly, and “discover a daily tip to boost your relationship”. It promises to help you get to know each other and “discover what your partner really thinks”, via questions like “how does my partner feel about monogamy” or “When the two of you want different things, who would you/your partner say is more likely to give in?”

The sinister bit, though, is the way the app adapts to your relationship over time. It promises to “align similarities in values like upbringing, parenting, and money management. It then adapts the content to pinpoint problem areas and push appropriate questions, tips, and challenges.” Essentially, it promises to identify “problem areas” and probe them daily.

While I’m loathe to imply that digital communication isn’t “real”, research does suggest that our interactions with a screen provoke less empathy than those we enact face to face. It seems likely that discussions about money management, parenting and monogamy might be best carried out face to face – and not chaired by an algorithm.

As in all areas, technology can only ever facilitate our relationships. We can’t expect it to improve, save or create them. It’s notable that couple apps seem most popular in long-distance relationships, where in-person interactions aren’t possible – they’re a second-rate substitute, not a replacement. Just as dating apps work best when you log out of them, and meet up face to face, perhaps couples should focus on being couples IRL.

*Names have been changed

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.