It could have been “Smugglr”, an Airbnb-like app for, well, smuggling stuff. That was one idea Jeff Kulak and Charlie Williams had when they were brainstorming ideas for start-ups based on the truncated style of naming used by Flickr and Grindr.
Kulak didn't even own a smartphone with which to use these apps. It was the spring of 2014, and they were sitting at the big wooden dining table in Williams' home in Bath. Dismissing Smugglr due to the potential legal consequences, Kulak tossed out his next idea – an app for people who wanted to meet up just to cuddle. “Cuddlr,” he blurted out.
“I want to make that,” Williams said immediately. “It's a very easy thing to program.”
Cuddlr officially launched in the Apple App Store on 18 September 2014 as a free app and gained users quickly thanks to press coverage. With the tagline, “Great things start with a hug”, the app touted itself as “a location-based social-meeting app just for cuddling”. A statement on its website said: “It's a way of finding people near you who are up for a cuddle, without any pressure or expectation.” It was not meant to be another dating app. Its founders were serious when they said it was supposed to be strictly platonic.
But not everyone was convinced of this premise. Days after the debut, Metro published an article titled: “Keep your hugs – the new Cuddlr app sounds seriously creepy.” Two days later, the Washington Post ran a similar story called, “I tried out Cuddlr, the 'Tinder for cuddling', and all I got was severely creeped out.”
This controversy only stirred further interest, and within the first week Cuddlr had around 200,000 downloads, landing it on Apple's “Top 10 Most Downloaded Apps” list.
But almost as quickly as it appeared, Cuddlr was gone.
The explosion of the app in the public sphere, and its swift downfall, are a testament to what happens when a provocative idea gets sucked into the tech media hype cycle, which eagerly stoked the controversy surrounding the app, and drove adoption far beyond what Kulak and Williams could handle. Indeed, more than any dating or hookup app, Cuddlr showed the fault line between dating and sex, which can surely be transactional, and the physical expression of intimacy, which turns out to be much more complicated.
Kulak and Williams, however, reasoned that there was a whole market of people just waiting for Cuddlr to be created. “I think we're ready to reconsider who we are physically intimate with, and what that means,” Williams told me by phone in October of last year.
While cuddling in most cultures is traditionally reserved for family (especially children), pets, close friends or people who are in a sexual relationship, Williams believed society had reached a level of maturity that allowed people to communicate what they really wanted from an interaction, and what their boundaries were. Cuddle parties, where a group of strangers could pay to meet up in a room with a supervisor and cuddle each other platonically, had popped up in recent years, and so had professional cuddlers – people who got paid by other people to cuddle with them.
Williams wanted Cuddlr to be part of the growing conversation about how society views intimacy, connection and sexuality. In his spare time, he coded a quick framework and proof of concept for the app. It was done in a few days.
Researchers have been looking at the potential health benefits of intimacy, affection and touch since the 1950s. Recently, they have focused more on cuddling to understand why people feel the need to do it and what the benefits actually are, which sheds some light on why phenomena like Cuddlr, cuddle parties and professional cuddlers exist.
People who are more affectionate “score lower in things like stress and depression and loneliness”, said Colin Hesse, assistant professor of speech communication at Oregon State University, who is a researcher in the field of affection and its benefits. “They have lower blood pressure, lower total cholesterol, lower blood sugar. So it's basically something that is stress-alleviating; it helps people deal with stress and recover from stress.”
Kulak is a freelance graphic designer, illustrator and visual artist. In May 2014, weeks after that first conversation in Bath and shortly after Kulak had returned home to Canada, Williams informed him via email that he had finished the basic coding for the app and would like him to design a logo and interface. Kulak put together a mint-coloured screen with two columns for users' profiles – display pictures in a circle with their first name underneath.
Working on Cuddlr during the night and at weekends, moonlighting from his full-time work at a start-up in Bristol, Williams started thinking about how to release the app.
“The whole thing came together pretty quickly,” he said.
In June he quit his job, started contracting as a developer for companies that needed apps built, and brought in Damon Brown, a journalist and author of a few books about intimacy and technology, to help with the launch.
“No one imagined that it would take off so quickly, so we had concentrated on shipping the MVP [minimum viable product],” Brown said. Unfortunately, the surge of traffic early on led to many users seeing an “error sending request” pop up whenever they tried to request a cuddle or send a message.
Like Tinder, Cuddlr was linked through a Facebook or Twitter profile to ensure that the user was an actual person. To add an extra level of safety, Cuddlr used an upvote/downvote system to help people decide whether to cuddle with someone. “I think it's important to not try to change a cuddle into something that is more than a cuddle,” said Williams.
“Tinder is huge; Grindr is also huge. So if what you want is a hook-up, you're very well served by existing apps,” Williams said. “But that isn't what everybody wants – and I think even a lot of people who are on Tinder, that's not what they want all the time.”
Instead, Cuddlr was for people who want to make a connection with somebody, and then go about their day. If that person happens to make an amazing impression, then that's great, and they could plan to meet up with them again.
There were warning signs right from the start. One user, “George”, whom I reached through the app, said his very first Cuddlr experience got awkward. He said they talked on the phone a few times before deciding to meet up. He suggested a public place, but she wanted to come to his apartment in Manhattan, since she lived just a block away. He didn't feel totally comfortable with her just coming over. “So I said, 'OK, let's meet on a corner and then walk to my place,'” he told me.
“It was a fun experience,” he said. “The cuddle itself was good, it was very friendly.” He also mentioned that the woman wanted more than a cuddle, which he declined.
“After my experience with this person, I kind of got the sense that a lot of people were using Cuddlr as a hook-up app rather than a cuddle app, which is fine if the woman initiates that, but it can send a weird message,” he said.
After the app launched, Williams stopped contracting and started working on it full-time. The whole project was bootstrapped using their own money – although Williams wouldn't reveal exactly how much – and eventually the revenue from in-app ads to pay for the server costs, which Williams said were up to about £200 a month last November.
That is when the partners started looking seriously for angel investors, so they could finally pay themselves and hire some more coders to help Williams.
The team spent a lot of time after the app was released trying to get people to understand how it worked. “People seem to think that the app is like this giant robotic arm that will grab them and another stranger and just sort of mash them together,” said Williams. “That you are somehow giving up autonomy or that using the app is like a form of consent, and that's completely untrue.”
“Tinder is clear and easy to understand. It's consensual and it's very action-oriented,” said Mark Morman, director of graduate studies at Baylor University's department of communication studies, in Texas.
He says that with Cuddlr there is more ambiguity. “You have this sort of, 'So you're just going to come over and cuddle? OK, so what does that mean?'” This uncertainty is because one person involved in arranging the cuddle could think it is going to lead to more intimate acts, or they want a cuddle that is more intimate than the other person wants.
Williams said that any time something calls for people to change their behaviour, some will find it threatening, and that Cuddlr is in the stage that online dating was 10 years ago, with people saying, “Oh, God, it's a new thing,” and not quite accepting the concept of platonic intimacy.
One of the reasons Cuddlr might not work, according to Morman, could be explained by a theory from researcher Kory Floyd that people are not affectionate with everybody because we view affection as a limited resource.
“We're only really affectionate with a few people,” said Morman. “Even with the people we do share affection with, we don't all share it necessarily at the same level.”
He did say, however, that the concept of Cuddlr and seeking touch from a stranger speaks to the social need we all have to feel accepted and feel affection. “We can't meet those needs by ourselves,” he said. “But we have to have it.”
“When you pay a professional, it's more certain what you're going to get, when you're going to get it and everything is kind of set up before,” said Jacqueline Samuel, 32, a professional cuddler. Samuel said she has terminated relationships with clients in the past because they tried to take things beyond the professional realm.
So why are people then OK with meeting up with a stranger via an app like Tinder and having an intimate interaction such as sex? Morman says this is because society doesn't necessarily see sex as an intimate thing in itself.
“Intimacy is a feeling of psychological or emotional closeness,” he said. “Those sex hook-up apps, they take that out of the equation, so it isn't about intimacy, it isn't about love, it's not about connection. It just strips it out, and I think it makes it easier for people.”
This might be one of the reasons why women in particular are not as comfortable meeting up through Cuddlr compared to Tinder, and because of concerns for their safety when planning to cuddle with a man.
On the morning of Monday 16 March 2015 Williams and Brown posted a link to a Medium post with the comment “#OneLastHug: Today, Cuddlr closes up shop. Thanks for all the love!” In the post, Williams and Brown outlined the issues they had to deal with – and they called it a post mortem. These problems mostly involved trying to get people to understand the concept of platonic intimacy, and the technical problems that Williams faced being the only iOS developer.
Once the app closed, the team received a new flood of emails – this time from users of the app lamenting its end.
“An email came through of somebody saying, 'Here's why I found Cuddlr so helpful, I'm sorry that it's not going, but thank you for making it,'” Williams said. “It's too bad because those are the things people say at your funeral. Nobody sends you that email when your app's in the store, it's just, 'I don't get this,' and 'Fix this,' and 'Why isn't this working?'”
He also said the people for whom the app served a deep purpose were often drowned out – even in the team's minds – by the people who were sure it was another dating app.
One of the things they tried to encourage in the post mortem was the idea that the conversation about platonic intimacy had already started, and that people could continue to talk about it – perhaps eventually changing the cultural norm.
After the app shut down they all took a little break. “We're exhausted, all of us,” said Brown back in March. “This is the tiredest I've been in a very long time.”
Now that the dust from Cuddlr has settled, the team members are slowly moving on. Kulak is continuing with his design work, Williams just finished a contract for an agency where he was working for a global car brand and is in talks with a few other companies about what he's going to do next, and Brown recently became a media studies professor at John F Kennedy University in California, advising other start-ups interested in using technology to connect people, as well as working on his next app and his next book.
This is where the story of Cuddlr should end, except it doesn't: Williams, Brown and Kulak sold the app to New York-based entrepreneur Eugene Belenky, who relaunched it in September with the same premise but a different name: Spoonr. Belenky said he renamed the app because he “had to”, but would not say why, or how much he paid for it.
Belenky also owns another app in the same general genre as Cuddlr. Tryster Dating is a free app that lets you “meet, chat and flirt with people that are literally a few feet away from you”.
So why pick up an app that didn't work the first time around, and whose entire premise was so controversial that many people just didn't understand what it was or why you would use it? “I like the idea; it's kind of different to what exists,” Belenky said. “The user base – the fans – liked it too, which is a positive thing to prove that the concept is working. I saw a lot of potential in it and I liked the rate of growth that they were able to achieve with so little.”
This new team is working on a redesign of the app, both the back end and the user interface, in hopes of fixing all of the “major flaws” that came with the app when Belenky purchased it.
Spoonr currently has around 300,000 users, and sees thousands of cuddle requests daily, said Belenky, who wants to get to 500,000 users within six months.
So, goodbye, Cuddlr, and hello, Spoonr. The platonic ideal of cuddling as a service lives on, whether we're ready for it or not.
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