WE’VE all been there. You’re out and about, minding your own business – you only popped out for a pint of milk, so you’ve just thrown your scruffiest coat over your jim-jams and you’re making Robert Smith from The Cure look positively elegant – when along the street towards you comes your ex, with his/her latest squeeze.
You have two options: you can throw yourself into the nearest hedge and wait there until they’ve gone past; or you can say hello, make desperately stilted conversation punctuated with overly-shrill laughter, and try to pretend this isn’t in the least bit embarrassing. Either way, when the horror is over, you scurry home and spend the next half hour howling “No, no, NO!!!” into a cushion.
The good news is that the technology now exists to prevent such toe-curling encounters from ever blighting our existence again. Scott Garner, a student on New York University’s interactive telecommunications programme, has created an app called Hell Is Other People (HIOP). Manhattan-based Garner, who admits to having “social anxiety” and a “disdain for social media”, calls his app “an experiment in anti-social media” because it tracks the whereabouts of friends and acquaintances, specifically to enable you to avoid them.
HIOP essentially piggy-backs on to the Foursquare social networking site, which was developed to help people connect with each other and meet up in the same places, by using maps and a check-in system. HIOP reverses this completely, so once you can see where everybody is, you can high-tail it in the opposite direction.
However, you may have noticed a teensy-weensy irony here. That’s right: you have to be a member of the Foursquare network to enable you to get away from other people on – you got it – the Foursquare network.
As Garner himself admits: “I had to sign up for a social media site and talk to people to get them to be my friends on that site so I could avoid them.” Ouch.
To be honest, I would’ve thought that the best way to avoid people in Manhattan would be to move to New Jersey, but I understand where Garner is coming from. Imagine the liberation of being absolutely sure you aren’t going to bump into anybody you don’t want to see.
Imagine never having to duck down behind a wall, or feeling obliged to painstakingly tie another pair of imaginary shoelaces, ever again. No more dull, awkward conversations about the weather, before suddenly noticing: “Oh no! Is that the time?” No more intense examinations of fingernails, contents of pockets, or pavement cracks, in the forlorn hope of not being noticed.
Quite apart from being a gift to adulterers – and perhaps even criminals – everywhere, this app could potentially lift the burden of unwanted sociability from the shoulders of millions of grumpy misanthropes.
Obviously, as Garner found, you would have to meet people in the first place in order to add them to your must-avoid list, but this could even bring a measure of refreshing honesty to our social interactions. After a lousy evening, you could turn to your companion and say with disarming candour: “Do you loathe me as much as I loathe you? You do? Great, shall we HIOP each other?”
Perhaps one day, the social and anti-social apps could be combined. With helpful colour coding – friends in green, enemies in red – you’ll be able to see exactly where everybody is and make your decisions about where to go accordingly. For example, if you’ve arranged to meet Steve (green) at the pub, but at the last minute you see that he’s with Dave (red), you would still have time to text and say: “Sorry can’t make it. Dog ate my tricycle.”
Even if you’re such a sociopath that you prefer to stay at home to eliminate even the slightest risk of meeting people, HIOP will be able to help you by warning you when unwanted guests are approaching. Then you can hide under the bed until the knocking on the front door stops.
Having said all this, I must admit that even though Edinburgh is a small city, I hardly ever have accidental or unwelcome encounters. In fact, it’s amazing how infrequently I bump into people I know. It’s almost as though all of them have rushed out to get this app and now they’re avoiding me! Oh, wait…