It started innocently enough. I created an algorithm that would aggregate user data, process it and formulate directives. The idea behind the application: Some people need help making decisions to improve their lives. The app was intended to be a guide, a sort of digital life coach, meant to steer users to healthier, happier lives.
Smile Squared launched in March, and by May I had pretty much forgotten about it. It had just north of thirteen hundred downloads before it plateaued. But it was getting surprisingly positive reviews for what I hoped would be useful but mostly constructed as a novelty app.
***** Downloaded this app and followed the instructions. Since then, I’ve lost six pounds and gotten a promotion. The app works if you do what it says.
***** I was a doubter. The first thing the app told me to do was go for a bike ride to the park. I’m like, okay, I’ll play along. I got to the park and it told me to talk to a girl who was there. I wouldn’t usually do that, but I thought, whatever. Then I talked to her. She had downloaded the app too and it told her to go to the same park. We went for coffee and have been dating for a month. I can actually say that this app made my life better.
*** Pretty good app, but sometimes it gets a little bossy. Like, I don’t always have time to exercise. Sometimes I’m just tired, you know. I do like how it reminds me to reach out to friends.
Then in July, Tech Time requested an interview. I gave them the basics of how Smile Squared worked. I said that the app considers five pillars of happiness: personal connections with friends and family, a sense of purpose, a feeling of community, physical well-being, and enjoyable recreation. Then it helps connect the user with those things. For example, it will remind users to call their mothers, or if another person using the app is nearby and has similar interests, it will connect the users. If there’s a community activity going on, it will tell users to attend. It will remind users to go to the gym and even find time in their schedules to do so.
Then I told the interviewer that I was launching an upgrade that would allow Smile Squared to be more individualized by quantifying user happiness through key word searches in their social media postings. The app would also have a happiness check-in feature in which the user will rate his or her overall happiness level at various times of the day using a one-to-five smile scale. One smile means sadness and five means extremely happy.
The upgrade launched in August, and the next thing I knew, I was making the rounds on radio and television. Smile Squared became a top-five lifestyle app by September and the money poured in. The press said things like, Finally an app that does some good. And Download, follow instructions, increase happiness. It’s that easy.
The first sign that anything was wrong came in late October when a user uploaded this review:
* It worked pretty good at first. The app told me to get a membership at the health club down the street, which I did. Then it recommended that I apply for a job that was posted on an online job board. I actually got the job. When the new update came through, the app kept asking me if I was happy, and usually I was pretty happy, like 3-4 smiles worth. But sometimes I was tired, or I had a bad day. Then my mom got sick and I was just like 1 or 2 smiles happy almost all the time. It kept recommending things, but I ignored it for the most part. Then one day I was driving and it told me to stop at Sunshine Burger and get a Double Shiner with cheese, large fries and a Coke. So I did that. And in the middle of eating, the app asked me if I was happy. I said that I was 5 smiles happy because, honestly, I had been eating healthy for a while and it was the best burger I think I’ve ever had. Now, the app just wants me to keep eating cheeseburgers. I’ve put on over 10 pounds!
That was strange. Prior to the update, Smile Squared steered users toward the five pillars of long-term wellness: community, family, health, meaningful employment and recreation. But allowing users to rate their own levels of happiness corrupted the criteria for success. The app appeared to take a shortcut to happiness, bypassing the original benchmark in favor of user-amalgamated feedback data. Basically, it searched for a quick-fix to get five-smiles.
So, yeah, I was aware of what users referred to as “the glitch,” but, to be honest, I didn’t care.
I had more money than I knew what to do with, and the “glitch” didn’t slow downloads. Plus, here’s the thing about apps: they have a shelf life. Apps are entertainment, like movies, books and music. They earn their worth within the first year or so, then fade into obscurity.
Also, I kind of wanted to see how this would play out. Then I got more reviews:
* This app made me lose my job. It told me to stay home from work and eat Super Marshmallow cereal and watch Netflix. Next thing I know, my boss fired me. Sure, when I was at home eating and watching TV, I was like five smiles all the time, but now I’m not even one smile. Thanks a lot Smile Squared!
* This app is a scam. Stay away. I listened to everything it said and I’m way worse off.
* Smile Squared told me to superimpose my face on swimsuit models and post the pictures on my Facebook page. Told me to lie on Twitter about how great my life was. I got a lot of awesome feedback and likes at first. Now I’m one smile unless enough people comment on my social media.
**** Decent app. Just kept telling me to smoke weed.
Other than during the original trials, I never used the app. If you know how it works, it’s not quite as magical. And really, I found it more distracting than anything. By the time the update hit, I’d moved on. But after the negative reviews, which I mostly laughed off, I figured I should probably give it a try. So I downloaded my own app, and it was a total disaster. It had access to my bank balance, so it kept telling me to buy things. It recommended vacations, expensive cars, tailor-made suits, boats and prostitutes. I didn’t follow through on most of it. I just put in five smiles here and one smile there just to see how it would process the data.
Then I figured, fine, I’ll make one last update. But I wasn’t about to go back to the original algorithm. I liked the idea of user-driven feedback creating more personal directives. My goal with the update was to avoid users yo-yoing between one and five smiles. Obviously with life being what it is, some variance in happiness is to be expected. But if I could find a way to eliminate the one-smile ratings and keep users at three smiles or higher, I could milk the app a little longer. Basically, rather than working so hard on making users five-smiles happy all the time, just keep them steady. Kind of like an SSRI. The app won’t always make you happier, but it also won’t let you get quite so unhappy.
The new update came out a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, and with the boon of the holidays, user feedback improved.
***** New update is great. Got together with family for Turkey Day, met up with some peeps I knew from high school and hooked up with a girl I used to crush on. Hitting the gym on Monday (gonna get yoked!). Not eating so much junk food. Everyday I be smilin’.
**** I’ve had the app since May and I have to say, the new update has made it way better. It doesn’t tell me to sit around and watch TV anymore and it doesn’t tell me I need to exercise (it was so bossy!). Just reminds me to update my Facebook profile or text a friend. Tells me about movies that are playing nearby or recommends restaurants I might like.
In January things took a turn though. User happiness declined again, and again the app started finding shortcuts. It recommended drugs and alcohol. Started telling users to lie on their social media pages. One user reported that the app told her to text a topless photo of herself to her boss. And the users did these things. They got drunk and stoned. They stayed up all night on cocaine binges posting fake social media updates. They called in sick to work. They ate massive quantities of fast food and ice cream and went dangerously into credit card debt. Six users killed themselves when they gave so many one-smile reviews that death was the only solution the app could find to save itself from failure. It told them, blow out the pilot light and stick your head in the oven. Draw a warm bath and grab a razor. It told them, tie a turkey roasting bag around your neck and take sleeping pills. It told them, close your eyes and let all your one-smile reviews slip away.
Then a lawyer called. A class action lawsuit was in the process of being filed for damages to the individuals and the families affected by Smile Squared. People blamed the app for making them overweight or addicted to television and drugs and shopping. They blamed the app for causing them to base their inner-worth on Facebook likes and retweets. Users blamed the app for losing their jobs. They blamed the app for their failed relationships. They all said, “We were just doing what the app told us to do. It promised it would make us happy. It said that if we just listened and followed directions that it would take away our pain.”
The lawsuit sought seven hundred million dollars in compensatory damages to be divided amongst the defendants at varying levels conditional to their individual losses. I received a summons in the mail and contacted my lawyer who looked at the evidence and seemed unconcerned. He said they were gold-digging. That I would have to get used to it now that I was rich. That it would be a good idea to keep him on retainer. The other lawyer used words like “fraud” and “scam” and said I “preyed on weak-willed people.”
I was to appear in court on Monday, March 12th for the commencement of the trial. But then something happened. A sort of miracle.
Sunshine Burger opened a new location near the courthouse the Saturday before I was set to appear, and this would be the site in which they debuted their new Quad Sunshine Special, a four-layer beast of a burger, laden with cheddar and bacon and Super Sunshine Sauce. The burger went viral, and people came from hundreds of miles away. Throngs pushed through the streets, desperate to try the new burger, to not be left out. The city slid into paralysis as people posted selfies with the sandwich. Demand was so high that Sunshine Burger limited each customer to two Quad Sunshine Specials per purchase. Still, lines wrapped around blocks like tentacles.
I pushed through the crowds to get to the courthouse by nine, but the door was locked. I pressed my face to the window. Blackness. I stood atop the courthouse stairs watching the mobs shuffle toward the front of the restaurant. My phone buzzed an alert at me. I still had my Smile Squared app open. It asked me to rate my happiness level, so I tapped five smiles. Then it informed me that my recent stock purchase of ten thousand shares of Sunshine Burger was up nearly eight points today. To celebrate, Smile Squared recommended that I take a vacation to Jamaica, and I thought, yeah, I could stand to get out of the cold for a couple of weeks. I think I’ll even take a private jet.
Jacob Wrich is the author of the short story collection, The Prodigals (2017). His stories have appeared in the Eunoia Review, Literally Stories, and The Summit Avenue Review. He lives in Minnesota.