Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

With Rando, the World Is Connected and Mundane and That’s Kind of Beautiful

Somewhere on the other side of the Internet is another person just like you, idly playing with her smartphone. And the delightful app Rando would like to connect you, just for a moment.

Randos received on the left, Randos sent on the right

Randos received on the left, Randos sent on the right

Rando is an “experimental photo exchange platform,” as co-creator Steve Bittan describes it. The app’s users submit photos cropped in the shape of a circle. Each photo is anonymously delivered to exactly one other user. In return, the sender gets to see where it was viewed. He also receives a photo and location from a different Rando user.

The first time I used Rando, I was bored in a car late at night, and sent a picture of the winding road ahead. I got back a photo from Korea of a music app playing the song “Live Forever” by the British band Oasis. The other night, I sent a photo of what I was watching on my TV, and ever so coincidentally got a photo of a TV back from Japan. Yesterday, I sent out a picture of a bottle of juice and got back a portrait of a golden retriever in France.

To be sure, most Randos are nothing special; just tiny glimpses of a day in another smartphone user’s life.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a quick snapshot of humdrum existence,” Bittan said in a phone interview this week. “It’s voyeurism.”

I’ve written recently about seeking out apps that encourage more authentic communication, instead of the self-aggrandizing status messages and tarted-up photos people tend to post on Facebook and Twitter. With its minimalist one-way photo messages, Rando seems to fit the bill. Bittan said he thinks of it as “an antisocial app.”

“People are sharing so much content, and in a way it’s all the same content, whether it’s food or selfies or what you’re wearing today,” Bittan said. “Anything that glamorizes your life or is used to express individuality, isn’t, because everyone else is doing the same thing.”

Since launching in March, Rando has been downloaded more than 500,000 times, about half on iOS and Android, and a few more on Windows Phone.

The diversity of locations of Rando senders and recipients is probably the best part of the app — though if you download it, be prepared to see the map of South Korea again and again. South Korea accounts for about a third of users, followed by the U.S., Russia, Brazil and the U.K., according to Bittan.

Before I can ask, Bittan brings up “the Chatroulette problem.” He says inappropriate photos account for less that .5 percent of all Randos so far.

If Rando blows up, I’d expect that proportion to zoom much higher — but Bittan argued that the system discourages abuse because users can only send photos to one person, and they never see that person’s reaction.

However, he readily admitted that Rando would probably be a terrible business. “The traditional ways of monetizing, advertising, would make it too commercial, I think,” he said. “But the original premise was about purity outside of the constraints of social media, and free is the best way to do that.”

For the moment, that’s not a problem, because Rando is a product of London-based design studio UsTwo, where Bittan is marketing director. He said UsTwo regularly develops its own apps to keep its team sharp.

So, why write about Rando here if it’s just a sort of art project? For one thing, it’s interesting and rare to see a one-way communication app. Sending and receiving Randos leaves you wanting more, with no way to leave a comment or a like, or contact your correspondent to hear the rest of their story.

That’s not going to change, Bittan said — but the next version of Rando will include one tiny additional signal: A grading system so receivers can note their appreciation for a particularly good Rando.

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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”