Last Friday, Peach—a new app that lets users post status updates, images, and drawings—rocketed around social media and to the top of the Apple app charts; on Monday, it was declared “dead.” Such is the lifespan of an app. (At the time of this writing, it didn’t show up at all on Apple’s Top Free App charts.)
In truth it’s far too early to figure out whether Peach will establish itself. The app is, however, more interesting than my quick explanation suggests. Users can post status updates, images, and “magic words”—keywords that let you post where you are, what song you’re listening to, and instantly conjure up gifs associated with moods or ideas, and more. Then there’s the social aspect; your friends on the network can like and comment on your posts, like most other social media services. But Peach is different because it focuses mostly on affect. The term, which has grown to prominence in critical theory over the past decade or so, tends to refer to those crucial parts of being human that we don’t quite have words for—emotion, intensity, and pre-conscious thought. Ergo, the app is all soft aesthetics: pastels, emojis, a list of friends that fades out at the bottom of your screen. There’s a nostalgic, almost amateur quality to it, reminding one less of modern apps than the Geocities- or Livejournal-era Web.
What is initially discombobulating about Peach—the fact that there is no centralized feed, for example, or that you often discover the aforementioned magic words by accident—actually focuses on what is compelling about social apps: Into their blankness, we project our desire for other humans. The ability to GIF your hangover or send someone a “boop” (Peach’s answer to the Facebook poke) expresses the primary connective function of social media: Click send, and then wait for your friends to shower you with recognition. Using the app, I found both I and those I followed tended toward abstract feeling, posting expressions of emotion, vulnerable selfies, the odd nude pic, charming experiments in random poetry.
Whether this will be enough to sustain Peach is uncertain; things are certainly tough out there for a new social network. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are so entrenched that they’ve entered our vocabulary as concepts in themselves—we think in tweets, vines, and instagrams. Because competing with so many functions becomes nearly impossible, new entrants focus on one or two basic aspects of communication and discard the rest. Yo, for example, started out as an absurdly reductionist app that simply let you send friends one message—“Yo.” And Ello, intended to be ad-free and have better privacy than existing services, highlighted how new apps are better thought of as blank slates—spaces where you can start over, reinvent oneself for some new, anonymous audience. For what it’s worth, neither gimmick was enough: Ello is now aiming to be a platform where creators can share work, while Yo pivoted to send customized notifications, such as when a sports team wins a game.
In the meantime, however, Peach appears content to have a ruthless focus on affect. Its emphasis on eliciting images, mood, and creative sparks in miniature seems uniquely aimed at the heart rather than the head. It ends up revealing the core of modern social networks: In order to survive, you have to cultivate a feeling of compulsiveness around your product. Advertisers have known this for decades. It isn’t enough for a thing to be useful or good; the thing has to fulfill some more unconscious need. So in other words, successful apps build structures that reward our pleasure centers. They compel you to click.
But if Peach is unlikely to succeed—after all, who needs another social network to check?—it also suggests why the entrenched networks are so compelling. Instead of focusing solely on practicality or affect, they mix them together. Twitter becomes the place where you talk social justice and stalk your crush; Facebook is where you talk to Grandma and stake out potential employers. Social media services are scaffolds for relationships.
If you consider social networks as structures of affect, you can reframe discussions of modern tech. Take the digital distraction argument, for example—the idea that tech pulls us away from real life. There are those, like Sherry Turkle or Nicholas Carr who argue that the internet hinders more fundamental human connection. On the other hand, some who disagree argue that online interaction is real and meaningful, and thus isn’t a distraction at all.
What both positions can elide, however, is that the very realness of digital interaction can itself become too much—another modern mechanism in which surfeit is the norm, and the only healthy response is, perversely, a kind of denial. But when a smartphone is the site of so many types of desire—reading, scoping out new jobs, and getting laid—is it any wonder we pick it up so much? The twitch to check our phones or a hot new app is fundamentally not about what’s online. It’s about how we live now.
Peach, in its disarming way, shows that modern technology is perhaps the most efficient machine we’ve seen thus far for shaping desire. Whether or not this particular app lives or dies is inconsequential. We are already caught in the rush of the feed. The only thing to do is decide when to disconnect, to pause.