Amino vs. Communities of Divine Design

When Jay Stockwell moved to a new city with his wife, he had trouble meeting new people. He worked from home, and only made new friends when random events brought him in contact with a potential friend—someone who listened to the same music, for example, or played the same sport or shared a common interest. It seemed odd to him that something as important to health and happiness as relationships would be left to chance, and so the veteran innovator and behavioral scientist teamed up with data scientist Cameron Slabosz, and in 2015 the two created Affinity, a social media app designed to automate what he had formerly left to happenstance: locating like-minded people based on affinities. Or, as the Affinity website describes it, making connections by design rather than by chance.

Epic Catch, another affinity-based app, facilitates connections based on experience sharing. Want to try paddle-boarding, but none of your friends are interested? Epic Catch will help you find a partner for a paddle-board excursion.

In an age of social fragmentation, affinity-based apps can be a useful tool for transients, newcomers, or anyone looking to make new connections. But not all affinity-based apps are created equal. In 2012, Ben Anderson and Yin Wang happened upon Anime Boston and marveled at the sight of so many complete strangers converging and bonding over their shared fandoms. (Anime is an internet-era, Japanese style of motion-picture animation.) Why not create a tool that would make it easier for enthusiasts like these to connect around their shared interests? they thought, and the two created Amino as an affinity-based app for teens.

Amino bills itself as a "network of communities [that] lets you explore, discover, and obsess over the things you're into." Each amino is a "community" offering "great content, the friendliest of people and exciting events." Amino (the software product) is not just one app, in fact, but is a whole ecosystem of them in that each community/amino is actually a stand-alone app. Amino began with about 90 of them, and in 2016, the company added the ability for any user to create an interest channel with the plan that popular ones would be developed into more apps. By early 2018 the number of aminos had grown to more than one million, and some of them were populated by as many as 100,000 members.

Its inception may have been well-intended, but Amino ended up epitomizing a lot of what's problematic with social media, especially given that its targeted user group is teens (the platform specifies ages twelve and up).

First, Amino was created as a mobile-only app, meaning there was no desktop version at all. (This changed somewhat in 2016, when the company released a desktop portal, but it's still primarily mobile.) This might have been fine in a product intended for adults, but a mobile-only app for children seems suspiciously like a deliberate attempt to bypass parental supervision. Here are some functions Amino enables children to do from a smartphone or tablet:

• Explore: watch videos, read blogs, and interact via quizzes and polls.
• Discover communities about whatever you're interested in.
• Get the latest news and info.
• Post your own content and get feedback.
• Chat with likeminded people, in public groups or one-on-one.
• Customize your profile and grow a following.

Who in his right mind thinks this is good territory for children to roam on their own? Louise Matsakis, who reviewed the product for WIRED, wrote that "almost immediately after joining any community, I was inundated with messages from strangers." Amino also has its own built-in web browser, so that even if a parent disables a device's browser, Amino-empowered kids can still surf the net.

Second, all Amino interactions are anonymous and amorphous. This is by design, as Anderson believes anonymity is integral to self-expression. "We want people to be able to express themselves," he said. "We do want people to create an identity, but we don't necessarily want them to bring their full real-life identity. They can craft this identity around this one topic they're really passionate about."

Although Amino stores a user's information, it doesn't carry his crafted identity across communities, which confirms that identity fluidity is, as they say in software development, a feature, not a bug. You can be one person in Overwatch, another in Pokémon, and still a third in Stephen King. Some aminos have video chat capability, but you can only chat via an animated avatar that conveys expression but doesn't show your face. Certainly, there are reasons to prefer this layer of removal for minors interacting online, but if the point of an affinity-based app is to provide community, then a pixelated, anonymized medium hardly qualifies.

Third, the design of Amino creates a kind of "Hotel California" effect. In their excellent and thorough Parent's Guide to Amino Apps, reviewers explain that once you've created an account, you can join an amino with the tap of a button, but how you leave one isn't nearly so obvious or intuitive. Also, if you join a public chat and then leave it, you continue to receive notifications from it until you manually delete the chat. A similar thing happens if you join but then leave a video screening, except that you continue to get the audio from it until you go back in and figure out how to get out.

Matsakis also pointed out an isolation aspect that is rare for a social network. Because it contains very few links to external sites, "Amino has fostered a culture that often ignores the rest of the internet." When kids go into Amino, they tend to stay in there a long time. Axis says the average user session is 70 minutes long.

Amino's tagline is "Your Interests . . . Times Infinity." Maybe that sounds cool, but the very design of Amino seems to work against its users' interests. And all of this is apart from the very real threats posed by predators, perverts, and other online pests for whom Amino's cloak of anonymity is especially emboldening.

Social Net Dead Ends

It also works against the very thing Amino claims to be about: community. Here's how: Affinity and Epic Catch were created to help relationship-minded people find other relationship-minded people based on shared interests. Like dating apps, implicit in both is the intent to form real-life, in-person relationships. The apps are only tools you use as a means toward that end. They don't substitute for a relationship, nor are they "places" you go to just to "hang out." By contrast, Amino seems designed to draw children into its own curated cyberspace and keep them there as long as possible, all under the guise of being a community where they can "unite with [their] people." But this is not community. This is more like a rabbit hole.

At best, Amino offers something like a vanity fair bazaar, where people browse and maybe exchange exotic offerings. (As you might expect, Amino communities tend toward the bizarre and fringe.) Relationships don't happen in this kind of setting. They don't happen in any setting, cyber or otherwise, where people hide behind walls of anonymity, creating and recreating identities ad infinitum. And where relationships are not being formed, you have no community.

The Axis reviewers made another observation about Amino-land that is worth reflecting on: "There are a lot of lonely, sad people out there who are looking for affirmation online." This probably comes as no surprise. Our need for relationships and community ranks right up there with our need for food, water, clothing, shelter, and air. But how tragic that people are looking for them in such a labyrinth.

Social Networks . . . Times Infinity

This raises a point worth exploring. Why are we such relational and communal creatures? The Darwinists say it's because running in packs aids our survival as a species. But Christianity gives us a very different explanation. Christianity tells us we are relational beings because we bear the image of our maker, who is himself a relational Being. There are lots of healthy venues where people can seek out community, but there are two he has designed into the human ecosystem—the family and the church.

Two features especially distinguish these "communities," not just from Amino or social media in general, but from most other social groups, no matter what they're based on. First, both the family and the church are communities whose existence transcends the individual members. With family, except in the case of husband and wife, whose relationship presumably began around some shared interest, the entire matrix of relationships, and to a large extent its members' identities, has nothing to do with anyone's choices or affinities but is based on something larger and more permanent. Our families precede us and, except in rare cases, will live on after us. The same holds for the communion of saints, the ancient phrase for the whole company of God's redeemed people through the ages. Although choice or affinity may come into play when you join a local church, Scripture portrays this community as an eternal, organic body held together by Christ himself.

Second, both the family and the church are communities in which it's especially difficult to hide who you are. This is fairly obvious with family, but may be a bit more obscure regarding the church, especially to the secularized observer. There's a common line of attack that says church people are hypocritical and fake, and no doubt it's often true. But where this happens, it is not just an instance of faulty behavior. It reveals a misunderstanding of the very basis of Christianity. Why? Because to gain entrance to this community, you must (1) make a confession of sin and brokenness, and (2) admit utter helplessness at self-redemption. Talk about "getting real."

But here also is an area where Christianity shines. One may experience an identity crisis at the threshold, but at entry, we receive a new, full, real-life identity, crafted for us not around our narrow interests but around the eternally existing Second Person of the Trinity. It's the ultimate rags to riches story.

But lest we get a big head, there will be radical training grounds awaiting us once we get inside, which brings us back around to those communities of divine design. Since our three-in-one God prioritizes love as the supreme virtue, he calls us to a radical kind of love—not love in abstract platitudes but in the real-life, day-in-day-out relationships we have with those we live among. The directive applies in any social group, but family and church are custom-made for this, having been designed by the Creator to nourish, train, and grow us into our new identity, which is his likeness. Think of it as "His Interests . . . Times Infinity." And we get all the benefits of the infinity part.

is a freelance writer and blogger on apologetics and matters of faith.
This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #46, Fall 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |