Our slogan was “Great things start with a hug”, but this is where it ends… at least for us. Cuddlr grew from a brainstorm between developer-engineer Charlie Williams, graphic artist Jeff Kulak, and pop culturalist Damon Brown into one of the most talked about — and controversial — apps of 2014. First released on September 18th of last year to promote the idea of platonic, peer-to-peer cuddling, it led a wave of full-time professional cuddlers, national cuddling studios and even cuddle conferences that would engage people in a cultural discussion over the past six months.
Tens of thousands of successful cuddles later, Cuddlr is hanging it up. We’re shutting down the service today. We never expected the amazing amount of love, the hundreds of thousands of users or the gaggles of fan mail we’ve received since September. We are eternally grateful and, most importantly, humbled that we were able to call attention to the need for platonic affection. Now we, the founders, have decided that it’s time to move on to other projects, happy that we’ve created the discussion we originally set out to facilitate.
We’d like to take this moment to share some of the ups and downs we’ve had, and some of the things we’ve learned along the way. Here’s how a simple idea helped create one of the biggest cultural discussions of late.
The launch: How it went right (and wrong)
Damon: Launching an app is a daunting process, and one of the biggest challenges is to stand out, particularly today when thousands of new apps hit the App Store every week. The challenge is even greater for indie developers without a budget for billboards or Super Bowl spots. I knew all that coming aboard the Cuddlr team, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bigger was already happening in the cultural zeitgeist. “I’m not sure if we’ll get the attention it deserves,” I told Charlie, “but it is tapping into a larger social discussion.”
It also tapped into something within me. My past speaking and writing work navigates a gray emotional area technology now allows us to explore. We are often afraid technology is making us more isolated, but what if we turned our smartphones, our cameras and our laptops into tools for connection? I wanted to move beyond just talking about cultural change, though. Cuddlr was an opportunity to not only describe this, but help create it.
The problem, though, would be that not everyone would ‘get it’ right away. Physical contact is something people have all sorts of baggage around, and discussion of it apart from sex and dating is still fairly new. That’s why, instead of contacting a bunch of media outlets, I decided to go focused: We co-wrote a little manifesto on Medium about why Cuddlr was necessary today, made a promo video, and Charlie gave an exclusive interview with Salon.com.
Those two articles, published September 18th, immediately created a discussion: Late Night with Seth Meyers and Live with Kelly and Michael put us in their monologues, The Onion did a parody, and sex columnist Dan Savage ripped us to shreds — all within the first two days. It was nuts. By the time the week was up, we had hit Apple’s Top 10 list for most downloaded apps. In the coming months, The Wall Street Journal slapped us on page one, we appeared in the New York Times, The Doctors TV show talked about Cuddlr’s potential health benefits, and many other media outlets spread the conversation.
This popularity, however, created some issues. In week one, 200,000 people tried out Cuddlr, but our entire support team was just me, Charlie, and a few friends helping out. No one imagined that it would take off so quickly, so we had concentrated on shipping the MVP (minimum viable product) to get feedback from early users, planning to fix bugs and roll out features gradually as the audience grew. That dream quickly faded. The weight and demand on the servers — not to mention us — was enormous. We were constantly playing catch up: Media queries, interview requests, bug fixes, app updates, 24/7 customer support and the rising media tide all were suddenly vying for our attention.
The cultural sensitivity around Cuddlr’s premise meant that we got lots of confrontational media. The biggest platforms, like the talk show circuit, didn’t understand why a prospective Cuddlr user couldn’t just “go home and hug their wife and kids”. We began a process of educating people: No, not everyone wants to connect with people they already know; no, not everyone has loved ones they can platonically connect with when they need to.
As we approached the end of 2014, the conversation was beginning to shift. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal opened up to the idea that, yes, maybe we do need physical connection that isn’t a prelude or postlude to sex. We had succeeded in starting a conversation, but the journey was much more public than we had expected!
Cuddling at scale: Technical debriefing
Charlie: When an app suddenly goes from a few test users to many hundreds of thousands, every bug, every edge case, every confusing or unclear interaction suddenly has a giant spotlight shining on it. As Damon said above, we were suddenly getting tons of email: fan mail, yes, and people unclear on the concept, but also bug reports. My job became to fix these as quickly as possible — thankfully, many were simple fixes — and I ended up rushing out several updates in a very short period of time.
Zuck famously told Facebook to “move fast and break things”. When you move fast, sure as heck things are gonna break. And we broke some stuff: For a time, cuddle requests would disappear (or worse, auto-accept), some users lost the ability to chat or share their location, and other users saw their profile pictures disappear. I’ve long been of the opinion that it’s extremely difficult to adequately test the quality of code you’ve written yourself. You can do a lot toward that end (unit tests!) but just as a writer hands her work over to an editor before it is published, having a knowledgable second set of eyes is critical for software quality. (If you have a talented QA engineer at your place of work, please bring them donuts tomorrow.) This is why, aside from unit testing and user testing, things like pair programming are extremely valuable. Rick Hewes, our Android engineer, also gave valuable input on improving our server API as we worked to make the app multi-platform.
Another challenge we encountered had to do with our tech stack, the pile of interconnecting software that links your installation of the app to everyone else’s. So many technical decisions are made, early in the life of an app, that set the course for the app’s behaviour down the road. What will be easy to change? What will be difficult? How easily and cheaply will the server scale to handle a huge influx of new users? For a social app like Cuddlr, server stability, scalability, and responsiveness are paramount.
I had prototyped the app using parse.com, the company that gave Yo the chance to (a) launch an app after eight hours of total development time, and (b) launch an app with a security hole big enough to get Elon Musk’s phone number through. And because the app grew organically from a “hey, what if…”, because the team was so small, and because we didn’t stop to get funding before releasing, there wasn’t really a point before release where we looked critically at the tech stack we had chosen.
Using Parse, it’s incredibly fast and easy to get a server back-end running. And it worked really well… until we had users. Then, suddenly, it had an uptime issue. It had scalability issues. And it had absolutely, positively no support. The only way to get someone to speak with you is to file a bug, and bugs are routinely closed. I don’t want to get too far into technobabble, but suffice it to say that the Parse framework will sometimes wander off into its own dark world, creating threads and deadlocking them, until eventually it brings down the whole app. Lots of other people have reported this happening, in lots of other apps. The current state of the bug report? “Closed”.
It’s tempting, of course, to lay this entire state of affairs at Parse’s feet. But in truth the idea of platonic cuddling is still very new. It’s a bona fide movement, and gaining speed at an encouraging pace, but in the end it’s not the kind of pace that will sustain this startup. For those of you who love the idea of Cuddlr and of meeting new people and cuddling them, we say: carry on! Culture is moving in the right direction: toward increased communication, toward more and more people deciding what’s right for them and looking for people they’re truly compatible with, instead of just following the cultural defaults of clubbing and hookups (which, to be clear, are also fine if you choose them instead of accepting them as commercial-grade default settings). Some people are freaked out by the idea of cuddling, just as some people are freaked out by open relationships, or bisexuality, or women’s rights. The freakouts will pass; this is the future, be bold, be yourself, and never stop cuddling.
Conclusion: Why the road ends here
Cuddling is now a trending story, cuddles are being tied to better health and professional cuddlers are being taken seriously. We would have loved for Cuddlr to become huge: to grow into a sort of anti-Tinder, the app everyone opens when they want to meet someone new, but not for a hookup. But the challenges we’ve described above, together with our great success in starting this discussion, means that this is the best time for us to step out of the action, walk away, and let it continue on its own.
The original intent behind Cuddlr was to start a dialog between individuals, with the press and among groups. We were humbled to help facilitate this experience for hundreds of thousands of people, and we’re confident that they will continue to look at their world differently even without an app to guide them.
It’s remarkable that a simple app had us giving hugs on live television, debating intimacy in public forums, and navigating thousands of emails lavishing praise or doling criticism. It’s even more remarkable that just a few individuals can end up starting that kind of discussion.
Don’t worry. We’re not done. Everyone on the project — Charlie, Damon, Jeff, and Rick — is full of bold ideas and a huge enthusiasm to continue creating. After a little bit of rest and rejuvenation, you can be sure you’ll hear from us again in some combination. Meanwhile, it’s nice to know that your passions and hard work can move the needle of our culture.
And maybe, if you see us, you can give a hug.
A special appreciation to Raymond Johnson, Stephanie Johnstone, Emma Hooper, Faye Davies, Owen Benson, Sam Cole, Parul Patel, Chia Hwu, Randy Dotinga, Tracy Clark-Flory, Violet Blue, Stuart McFaul, Jill Ford and Mark McGuire, as well as our many users. Thank you.
Cuddlr co-founder Charlie Williams is an app developer and engineer for many apps including Shazam, SingSmash, JamTxt, Traces, and Jingle+. He is a graduate of the Cambridge University Centre for Music & Science, Northwestern University School of Music, and holds a Finnish Cultural Knighthood.
Cuddlr co-founder Damon Brown is a TED Speaker and author of several books on intimacy and technology, most recently “Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online”. He is a brand strategist for Current TV/Al Jazeera America, Blizzard Entertainment and other companies.
Cuddlr co-founder Jeff Kulak is an artist and designer based in Montreal. He has fingers in the pies of illustration, book design, screen printing, sculpture, sound and public art. His work in publishing has been exhibited internationally and recognized with several Alcuin Awards.
Mobile & web software engineer Rick Hewes is a developer with a passion for all things web/server-y. He is also a certified scrum master, ZF2 certified architect, an intrepid cyclist, and makes fine pastry.