It’s worth celebrating when tech brings us together – even if that technology is a pub app

Dennis had always had a big appetite, but that night it was really put to the test.

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When my childhood friend texted to tell me he’d been fired from the start-up that had hired him just one month previously, I didn’t imagine that later that evening I’d be comforting him with four miniature bowls of peas.

“Are you going to eat them all?” I asked, somewhat incredulously. “Yes,” he said, and he did. Dennis had always had a big appetite, but that night it was really put to the test. Alongside the peas, we both consumed a portion of coleslaw, three plates of chips, two servings of garlic bread, onion rings, deep-fried mini-donuts with caramel and chocolate sauce, a glass of milk, a fried egg, a cookie dough sandwich, fruit salad with ice cream, and a serving of blue cheese dip.

This isn’t a new fad diet marketed to depressed millennials (look into this, it could be) but a collection of food items that family, friends and strangers had decided to send us via the official Wetherspoon app. JD Wetherspoon launched its app over a year and a half ago, declaring that it allowed “anyone with an iPhone or Android phone to order food and drinks to their table, without leaving their seat”. Since then, however, the pub chain’s patrons have realised that they can post their table number and pub name on social media, allowing people all over the world to gift them food and drinks.

“It was really nice for people to be able to show they cared given the awkward circumstances,” Dennis says now about his decision to post our table number (and the fact he’d just been fired) on social media. His cousin, who lives more than 200 miles away in Bolton, sent us sympathetic gin and tonics, before topping them off with tequila shots. “People who wouldn’t have been able to come and meet me even if they’d wanted to were able to buy me a drink.”

And buy drinks they did. Alongside our dinner, we were gifted four Jägerbombs, a glass of Glenfiddich, a Baltika beer, two pints, four tequila shots, one WKD, two glasses of Baileys, a rum and ginger, three G&Ts, an entire bottle of Prosecco, and a cocktail pitcher. Like ancient kings celebrating a good harvest, we shared our bounty, merrily bequeathing drinks near and far (tables 26 and 28).

I write a lot about how technology antagonises us, making every stranger a fake-news foe and fracturing our once-solid friendships. In a world where Instagram influencers damage self-esteem, YouTubers con children out of their pocket money, and lonely virgin men become “incel” terrorists, it’s easy to be cynical about social media. That’s why it’s worth celebrating whenever today’s tech brings us closer together – even if that tech is a pub app.

Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon says that in recent months, “more and more people have used the app to buy drinks for friends who are in a pub, while they, themselves are not”. Though Wetherspoon is unwilling to disclose official download figures, the app is the third most popular in Apple’s food and drink category, and searches for it trended in early September. “We have even served drinks and food to people in the pub which have been purchased on the app from friends and family as far away as New Zealand,” Gershon says.

It’s hard not to smile at this sort of generosity – and think about the endless possibilities for the future. Could something similar be used to donate food to those in need? Could hungry people get food sent to their homes, with a secure app that obscured their address but allowed charitable souls to give generously? After my Spoons trip I downloaded OLIO, an app that connects local people to each other and to shops to allow them to share unwanted food and eliminate waste. “Join the food sharing revolution,” the tagline boasts. Bought a box of cereal bars and realised too late that the flavour isn’t for you? Using the app, you can make sure it goes to a good home.

Of course, the Wetherspoon app isn’t always a great thing. It’s become a bit of a joke to send peas (50p) and milk (75p) to friends, and any food wastage should be looked down upon. But Dennis and I ensured nothing went to waste, eating our greens and sharing our purples. We even gave away 15 or so Golden Crunch and Fruit Shrewsbury biscuits to homeless people on the Strand.

The generosity of strangers meant we could pay it forward and become generous strangers ourselves, in the pub, making new friends because of – not in spite of – our phones. The pub chain’s founder Tim Martin probably didn’t release the app to bring the country closer together (after all, his Brexit beer mats went some way to causing the divisions). Yet this unintended usage of the app allows people to remove the physical distance between one another and share a pint. It’s one of those accidental, incidental uses of technology that won’t change the world – but can change someone’s day. 

Not only did Dennis barely have a second to feel sad about his (very) recent unemployment, he was actually offered a job by a stranger after sharing his second serving of Baileys. Plus, they really were nice peas. 

Amelia Tait is features editor of shortlist.com and an NS contributing writer

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism