An app to teach you to love instead of 'like'

"Fish: A Tap Essay" uses new technology for an old-fashioned essay.

The latest entry into the "Angry Birds" series of video game apps has been released. "Angry Birds Space" finds the birds, still angry, in space for some reason, launching themselves at elaborate buildings that contain green pigs. None of this seems especially bound by the laws of physics or zoology that we know of, although admittedly, logic has never been a strong suit of the "Angry Birds" franchise. "Angry Birds Space" is dominating the sales charts and will for some time to come, we expect.

It’s not the subject of our show today. Not that there’s anything wrong with "Angry Birds Space" (aside from the still-unsettling widespread acceptance of bird suicide), it’s just that we found another new app to be a lot more interesting.

Fish: A Tap Essay is a new app created by author Robin Sloan. It’s not a game, it’s not a utility app, it won’t help you find a gas station, it can’t help you shop for shoes. It’s an essay. Words. Thoughts. Robin puts a few words on each screen, maybe a sentence or so, and then you tap to move on to the next set of words, the next thought Robin wants you to consider. It’s free.

Robin wrote it and created the app because he had noticed that there were plenty of chances to “like,” or “plus 1,” or “star” or “fave” things on the web on social media. And it's easy to pass those things you like on to friends. But the like never turns into love.

“We're looking at dozens, sometimes hundreds of things every day in articles, videos, and we never look at them again,” he says. “Even if we do like them, even if we tweet them out to all of our followers on Twitter, we don't return to it. So, I came down on side of thinking that to love something on the Internet must mean that you return to it at some point. And I just realized how rare that was, for me at least.”

And why does he think that’s so rare?

“I think it's rare because there's so much great stuff,” says Sloan. “We live in this golden age of media of all kinds and I think we have better tools than ever before for finding stuff we like, whether it's algorithms, or other humans recommending things all day every day on Facebook, on Twitter, so with this endless flood of great stuff, why go back? There's always something new, always something interesting.”

I asked him why he created this as a free app instead of as a blog entry or a magazine essay.

“I started thinking about the ideas, and I knew I wanted to make this argument,” he says, “but I had the strong sense that if I just made it as a blog post, as a web page, it would suffer the same fate as everything else. It would get liked, faved, people would point to it for a day and then we'd be on to the next thing. So an app, at least for the time being, apps have this special privilege, they take over the whole screen of your phone, you can't do anything else while you're using an app, and it does really feel special. It feels like something you might take pause to dive into, and that's the effect I was looking for.”

I mentioned that an app also stays on your screen. Every time you turn on your phone, there it is.

“That's right,” says Sloan. “When you close a tab, or when you finish an article on the web, it's gone, unless you go back into your history, or search for it, or explicitly try to find it, apps on your phone have this special property, they hang around. In some ways, they're more like a book on a bookshelf than they are like web pages.”

Sloan says the app as a format for an essay has huge untapped potential. “It's not the case that words are outdated and we need to replace them with interaction and videos and birds flying in outer space, no words are still a great technology and we don't have to go searching for something new,” he says.

Also in this program, Philadelphia leads the nation in one dubious category: It’s the city where you are most likely to lose your cell phone. And you’re most likely to lose your phone in a coffee shop. 

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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