One of the less expected gifts delivered by the advent of the internet and artificial intelligence has been the ability to outsource work to strangers – both human and AI. “Work” in this case deserves a broad definition, since vendors on outsourcing sites like Fiverr.com offer services with tangible, digital, and entirely indescribable products. Meanwhile, BreakupShop.com divides its work between machine and human employees: the cheapest breakup is simply an automated text message, while a deluxe version promises a one-minute phone conversation with a professional. A common thread amongst these and other outsourcing services is that the work tends to be both brief and straightforward. After all, trusting unknown people or programs with complex tasks – especially tasks that involve communicating with other people – can be a risky endeavor.
BroApp bucks this trend entirely. Rather than end your relationship, like its breakup-outsourcing brethren, BroApp promises the impossible: to maintain it. The Android-only mobile app uses some basic information supplied by the user, like his schedule, favorite WiFi networks, and of course, his girlfriend’s digits to intelligently send said girlfriend loving text messages throughout the day. In the developer’s own words, the app is the culmination of “many man years perfecting the recipe of love communication.” Despite its humorous (and arguably satirical) presentation, BroApp says a great deal about modern masculinity, and accordingly there is a great deal to say about BroApp. I will begin my reading of BroApp with a discussion of its intended audience, followed by an investigation into its place within histories of gender, technology, and masculinity. Finally, I will attempt a deeper analysis of the processes at work within the app, in order to draw out some of its less-visible meanings.
An instructive starting point in analyzing any piece of technology is to consider its target audience, as well as its intended use by that audience. From its initial set-up screens, BroApp makes abundantly clear that it is an app designed and tailored for heterosexual men. Every prompt in the tutorial addresses the user as “Bro,” and the app consistently refers to the messages’ target as “your girlfriend.” The app’s obsession with the term “bro” – a word freighted with connotations of heteronormative masculinity – further limits its user-base from all straight males to specifically masculine ones. This is reinforced by nods to typical pillars of masculinity, from an icon of a pint of beer to symbolize the weekend, to a scale that ranks users based on how many automated messages they select: 0 or 1 is “Weak”, while 5 is “Strong” and anything higher is “BRO POWERED.”
Clearly, BroApp has a highly specific audience in mind. But why this particular audience, and why should this app appeal to them? The answer lies, at least partly, in the Western social expectation that young men prioritize their time and attention to favor male companions (‘bros’) while simultaneously distancing themselves from female companions (‘hos’). This expectation, popularly summarized as ‘bros before hos’, sets the scene for an app that alleviates the demands of maintaining a romantic relationship, thus freeing up time that would be better spent strengthening fraternal bonds. Gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel argues in his book Guyland that the ‘bros before hos’ dynamic fosters a “culture of silence” wherein “one remains steadfastly loyal to your guy friends, your bros … to whom your primary allegiance must always be offered, and for many that may even extend to abetting a crime.” (67). I would extend Kimmel’s “culture of silence” theory to accommodate the exhibitions of masculinity that often occur in all-male spaces and, consequently, the incredible value that men place on maintaining the integrity of these spaces.
Exclusively male spaces have long been magical ones, as John F. Kasson points out in “The Manly Art of Escape”, an exploration of Harry Houdini’s public performance of masculinity. Kasson notes that Houdini’s exhibition of his own nude figure was in no way hampered by an all-male audience, such as the Harvard men who “readily accepted” his offer to perform nude at the university in 1908 (115). And while Kasson comments only briefly on the gendered implications of Houdini’s performances for and with the police, a historically male-dominated force, I would argue that their frustration at Houdini’s subversion of their “manly prowess” (104) and typical “mastery over the criminal’s body” (104) demonstrates the contestations of masculinity that often occur in predominantly- or all-male spaces. Certainly an investigation of the factors that construct and perpetuate this formative arena is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that the ‘bros before hos’ mantra that BroApp promotes and sustains is one especially valuable to social performances of masculinity.
Though this context of masculinity offers a useful portrait of BroApp’s intended audience and usage, a close reading also necessitates a background for the app itself as a gendered piece of technology. In the first chapter of her book Technofeminism, Judy Wajcman establishes the existence of a male monopoly over technology (11-12). The nature of this monopoly, however, remains a source of contention for feminists, and Wajcman identifies two main lines of argument in this debate. The first, espoused by liberal feminists, holds that “the problem [is] one of equality of access and opportunity,” (12) while socialist and radical feminists argue that “technology itself is inherently patriarchal.” (12). Wajcman aligns herself nearer the former, positing that technology is “socially shaped, but shaped by men to the exclusion of women.” (30). Clearly, BroApp fits easily under this umbrella: the app is intended for use by (straight) men and (straight) men only. Yet a nuanced analysis of the app must look beyond the surface-level presentation and into the processes at work underneath.
Wajcman, at least in her first chapter, treats technology as a monolithic and single-layered entity, able to be neatly labelled as either masculine or feminine. Such an approach may prove adequate for some technologies, but it fails to encompass the intricacies of computer programs and other digital creations, which typically contain both front-end (visible to the user) and back-end (hidden from the user) data. Contrary to the popular narrative of computers as objective and ungendered things, the underlying processes and algorithms in digital technologies often bubble up and manifest themselves as gendered characteristics. Adrienne Massanari underscores this very fact in her article on social news site Reddit’s involvement in #GamerGate and The Fappening, two online controversies with anti-feminist and misogynist undercurrents. Massanari points to Reddit’s algorithmic bias toward new and popular content as a procedural structure that “can implicitly suppress certain types of content and highlight others and also serves as an unintentional barrier to participation.” (9). This bias, she argues, works alongside a number of other policies and mechanisms to “encourage the continued presence of toxic technocultures” (11) such as #GamerGate and The Fappening, thus underscoring the ways that processes can create meaning. A reading of BroApp would do well to investigate the processes at work within this particular technology, too.
Perhaps the best way to highlight BroApp’s processes is through comparison with the processes of another, similar artifact: namely, Christopher Strachey’s love letter generator. Strachey, a twentieth century British computer scientist and colleague of Alan Turing, built a program for the Manchester Mark I computer in 1952 that is now considered “the first known experiment in digital literature and perhaps … the first digital art of any kind.” (Wardrip-Fruin 302-303). Strachey’s program used a simple sentence structure algorithm to pick out and arrange words from a limited bank, producing awkwardly-worded declarations of love with lines like “you are my avid fellow feeling” and “you are my wistful sympathy” (Wardrip-Fruin 306). Computational media scholar Noah Wardrip-Fruin, whose own process-centric analysis of Strachey’s generator serves as the inspiration for my approach to BroApp, writes that it was “a process designed to fail.” The significance of the generator, he continues, is “not as a process for producing parodies, but as itself of a parody of a process.” (316). In other words, we ought not look to the generator’s letters as parodies of love letters, but instead to its procedures as parody of how people write love letters.
Whether or not BroApp is intended to function as parody or satire is less clear. However, much like Strachey’s love letter generator, BroApp is almost certainly set up for failure. A series of automated text messages, especially including ones as hokey and inhuman as “Hi darl, how did you go today?” and “I love you more than Jimmy Fallon”, probably won’t support any real relationship for long. No, BroApp’s real significance comes from not from the shortcomings of an AI-powered “relationship wingman” but from its necessity. As I have already discussed, men experience tremendous pressure to keep time with the ‘bros’ strictly separate from and prioritized above time with ‘hos.’ So, for a man to spend ‘bro time’ texting and attending to his girlfriend would be read as an outright betrayal of a core tenet of masculine culture. Likewise, for a man to ask a human companion for help managing his romantic life would be an astonishing admission of incompetence in an area over which men are expected to have complete mastery. The solution, then, is a non-judgmental, non-human assistant. The solution is BroApp.
Kasson, John F. “The Manly Art of Escape.” Houdini, Tarzan, and the perfect man: the white male body and the challenge of modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Print.
Kimmel, Michael S. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.
Massanari, Adrienne. “#Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures.” New Media & Society (2015). Web. 18 February, 2016.
Wajcman, Judy. “Male Designs on Technology.” Technofeminism. Cambridge, UK; Oxford: Polity Press, 2004. Print.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Digital Media Archaeology: Interpreting Computational Processes.” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2011. Print.