Media & Entertainment

The Short, Serendipitous Life & Untimely Death Of Antisocial Photo-Sharing App, Rando

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Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a piece about a new photo-sharing app called Rando built by a London app & design studio, ustwo, which had a colourful app release history (including the popular, psychedelic game Whale Trail). What was really exciting about Rando was not that it offered yet another way to share photos with your friends. Rather it was exactly that it didn’t offer that. Rando was entirely random photo-sharing.

A Brief, Serendipitous Life

The app asked users to upload a photo and share it with a total stranger — likely never knowing exactly who received the picture. In return for this random act of digital gifting, a photo taken by someone else would materialise in your possession, sent by a random stranger, after a short but satisfying wait.

This hesitation was intentional. Rando was deliberately non-instantaneous. It forced its users to slow down, to take in the scenery, to be contemplative of the content they had — not ravenous for the next bit of eye candy looming in their immediate future. It asked users to live a little more in the moment.

The photos shared on Rando were also inevitably distinct from the norm. Images sent and received were not the perfectly cropped, expertly filtered, quasi-symmetrical self-marketing fodder of Instagram. Or indeed the endless regurgitation of socially acceptable baby, wedding and binge-drinking shots shared over Facebook. Smug was not an inevitability on this antisocial network.

Rando was another beast entirely to the prevailing social photo-sharing communities. While the app itself was beautifully designed, the content it generated was quotidian, banal, usually mundane. And refreshingly so. With its requirement that people take a new photo for every image they shared, it continually hole-punched momentary windows into the lives of others. A rando could have been snapped by someone living under the same sky in your own city, or a foreigner from the other side of the world. Occasionally Rando’s serendipity took your breath away.

Sometimes the photos shared via Rando were mysterious. More often they were gloriously dull. Inconsequential corners of rooms. Blurred lines. Inscrutable darknesses. Exactly the kind of imagery people self-screen from putting out on their social networks. Yet, being so partial and imperfect, Rando engaged the user’s imagination — asking you to construct the missing social narratives yourself. Like a good book, this app required an active reader.

Rando was always intentionally antisocial. It was intended by ustwo as an experiment in what happens when you strip away all the established digital paraphernalia and feedback loops of likes and comments and favourites and followers. There was no way to comment on randos within the app; no way to follow particular users (indeed, no way to ID users at all); no likes (at least initially); and no identifying context beyond whatever the photo-taker chose to share, and the location of the shot (if the user allowed location sharing) — which was displayed as a pin-point on a map.

Introducing Rando in a blog last March, ustwo wondered:

…what happens when you cannot communicate between users in this social-media world that we’re living in today? Are users still going to be incentivised if they have no way of patting each other on the back with likes? Are you going to be engaged if you can’t follow specific users? And what happens when you are producing something but have no control over who will see it?

To get a measure of how unusual this sort of antisocial stuff was a year ago, just look at my tautological headline for the original story: ‘Ustwo’s Rando Is A Random Photo-Sharing App That Deliberately Snubs Social Features’. Deliberately Snubs. Any sub-editor under the sun would tell you that’s build in redundancy. Snubs implies deliberate, ergo deliberate isn’t required. But really my year-ago self must have felt the subconscious need to stress the fact that Rando’s antisocial tendencies were in fact agency, not accidental.

A Wider Antisocial Wave

A year on, doing something antisocial, random or anonymous isn’t half so strange. There are antisocial networksanonymous networks. Ephemeral self-destructing messaging, which requires you to memorise the missives you are sent, has powered its way into mainstream consciousness thanks to the rise of Snapchat. Anonymity is also being used as a catalyst and enabler to spread gossip. Or get teens talking. Or, well, spread more gossip. And Rando has clearly inspired a series of random photo-sharing clones.

Last year’s revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, of the extent of government agencies’ dragnet surveillance of Internet users, have also poured considerably fuel and interest into an online privacy movement that necessitates a degree of anti-sociality in order to protect your personal data from so many prying eyes.

Suddenly having everything you do online tied to your real-world identity doesn’t seem so harmless anymore. And with social networking absolutely mainstream, it’s clearly less cool to be always out and out overtly social. Putting some of your digital activity back in a private closet is far more interesting than sticking everything on Facebook’s public record.

Yet, despite this energizing of a general digital movement to be more antisocial, Rando is not going to be able to benefit from any wider momentum. TechCrunch can confirm that the app that lived for a year — and snagged close to a million downloads over this period (circa 880,000 in total, across its three mobile platforms) — is being taken offline permanently today.

An Untimely App Death

The death of an app can take many forms. Often apps are shuttered because they’re not popular enough. In Rando’s case it’s not exactly lack of usage that’s killed it. With close to 1M downloads it’s arguably a pretty substantial property for ustwo (for some context, the studio’s most popular app, Whale Trail, has had 5.2M total downloads since release in October 2011).

Rando has had several download spikes over its lifetime — off the back of things like Reddit posts, or a South Korean pop star telling his fans about it. One such spike led to a download peak of 34,000 per day at one point. However downloads are not the same as sustained usage, and more on that aspect of Rando’s demise anon.

The general problem for ustwo sustaining Rando is that the app has become more used than can be supported by its experimental origins. It’s an app without a team behind it now because there’s no monetisation strategy attached to it, ergo there’s no revenue to help keep it afloat. Indeed, it’s been something ustwo’s Kenny Lövrin, who came up with the original idea for Rando, has kept going mostly in his free time as a passion project in recent times.

Rando was always a side-project for ustwo whose bread and butter business is building apps for others. It does also take in revenue from apps of its own. The ones that have a monetisation strategy at least (the forthcoming Monument Valley iPad game is one example; Whale Trail is another). Rando never looked like a business. It was a learning exercise/though experiment that became more successful than was ultimately sustainable.

However ustwo’s Lövrin did keep Rando ticking over for a time. And while a one-man-support-band for a three-mobile-OS-platform app might not have been sustainable forever, it had kept Rando afloat until last week — a week in which,incidentally, another Reddit-fuelled interest spike saw the app snag another ~80,000 downloads. So Rando was still pulling interest in.

rando-artem-tilesThe nail in the coffin was an outside act, by a 20-year-old Russian programmer called Artëm, writing a script that reverse engineered the server API and flooded the system with 50,000 identical photos. That meant he was able to make off with all the original content being uploaded to Rando in one go, rather than having to upload a new photo to get a new photo. A sort of digital heist, if you will, that counteracted the give-one, get-one spirit of Rando.

(I spoke to Artëm via IM and turns out he wasn’t at all interested in obtaining a huge heap of random photos — rather he wanted to test the limits of the app. He also says he didn’t realise it wouldn’t have anti-overflow systems in place, and was “shocked” to return from work to find his image — of his vk profile — had been uploaded 50,000 times. “Author should make a limit on the uploaded photos or at least determine if there are more than 1,000 for 10-20 minutes,” he said. “Author should consider not only the users but also people who can do nasty things.”

Why did he make the script at all? “Just for the lulz” of course.)

ustwo banned Artëm but he was able to create a new account and repeat the behaviour. Plus his mass uploader script had been distributed online so others started using it. ustwo took a server offline for a while to firefight the problem but it told TechCrunch a proper fix would require “extensive” development on the backend and across all three Rando apps — and, with no monetisation attached to the app it’s not something the company says it can invest in right now. Ergo, Rando has to go. 

The Problem With Making Antisocial Stick

While Artëm’s actions were the trigger that brought Rando down, it’s also clear the app, in its current form, wasn’t sustainable — not for ustwo, at least — because of limited resources and no revenue attached to it. At one point, says Lövrin, ustwo tried switching the app to paid — asking £0.79 for it — but downloads dried up.

Developing premium features for in-app downloads might be another possible way to keep Rando going but, considering the radically antisocial stance ustwo took with Rando, it felt it didn’t have a lot of room for manoeuvre in expanding its feature set. Plus adding new features would again require resources and investment — something ustwo is clearly not willing to risk on more experiments.

It is, however, open to handing Rando over to someone who thinks they could keep the app going. “This whole antisocial aspect has been quite popular recently so there is probably some way of making money out of Rando but it’s just that we haven’t figured it out,” says Lövrin. “For us it would be quite nice if there would be someone else that would come and say ‘actually we really like this application; we can give it a new home’. If it could live on, there’s nothing wrong with that — if somebody’s willing to take that upon themselves.”

One misstep Lövrin points out, with the benefit of hindsight, is ustwo overreached itself by deciding to release the Rando app on three platforms (iOS first, then Android and also Windows Phone). It wanted to do this to showcase its capabilities as an app development studio but, for Rando, this meant support overheads were far higher and any fixes for bugs had to be rolled across all three platforms. It’s not even a 3x overhead but more like a 5x overhead per bug fix, he says. Keeping Rando on a single mobile platform would have made it far more manageable.

But the biggest problem for Rando appears to be its absolutist antisocial stance. ustwo did end up softening this approach slightly along the way by adding in a feature that allowed users to say whether they liked or disliked a photo by moving a slider from beaming smile to severe frown (or something in between). This meant users could view their sent randos and not only see where they had ended up but also whether the recipient had liked them. That was already taking Rando slightly out of its purist antisocial corner.

But having made such a strong antisocial stance, rolling back further wasn’t really an option. “In our case, by being really vocal about ‘we are not going to do social’ you kind of paint yourself into a corner,” says Lövrin. “Because it’s hard to break out of that and still keep your face.”

Part of Rando’s problem is that social stuff is put there by developers for a reason: it’s sticky. It makes people come back and keep coming back to an app or service. So if you deliberately pull out all those social hooks then achieving sustained usage is evidently an uphill task. At least without some other addictive additive to pull people back (quasi-anonymity among groups of friends that at least allows people to try and guess who’s who, for instance, or guess where gossipy content might be coming from or who it might be referring to — thinking of apps like Secret and Whisper).

ustwo doesn’t have solid monthly active user data for Rando but says one measure — based on percentage of users that have been logged into the app at least once in the past two weeks — generally hovered around 15%. So, in other words, quite low. That underlines the difficulties of making something that’s truly antisocial sticky enough for the mainstream. People may download it and use it for a bit, but they will likely forget about it when the next cool app arrives to distract them.

“One thing we always struggled with, with Rando was the retention rate of users,” says Lövrin. “Because of these peaks… we would have quite a lot of downloads, but we weren’t really able to keep the interest of the users for very long… I think a lot of the people [who downloaded Rando] don’t have the app installed anymore.”

There’s no doubt Rando did have some fans (myself among them), even if users didn’t always stick around. Just under 20 million photos were uploaded to the service over a year of usage (not including last week’s reverse engineering incident). But squaring the circle of a small group of engaged users and zero obvious revenue potential with increasing infrastructure/support costs — due to transient popularity spikes and the unfortunate interest of lulz seekers — was never going to be sustainable. An app without investment is ever a doomed app.

It seems ironic that, given how much energy, effort and creative ideas are now swirling around a — let’s call it — more antisocial movement among app makers that Rando, an early champion of doing things differently, should have to fall on its sword. But so the digital winds blow sometimes.

There is always still the chance that someone could come along and adopt Rando — perhaps just for the lulz. Or with a cunning strategy to monetise antisocial photo-sharing. Lövrin says one of the more “entertaining ideas” kicked about while ustwo was trying to think of how they could monetise Rando was creating a companion (paid) app that would distribute only the inappropriate content that had been flagged and filtered out of Rando, i.e. for people who wanted to see that kind of stuff — ergo, a pivot to porn. But doing that is not in this particular app studio’s wheelhouse.

“A lot of applications that are free are sold based on their data but in our case it’s a little bit strange, even if we have a lot of data it’s a strange kind of data because it’s anonymous and it’s random photos. When you think of the value, you think oh yeah we’re actually sitting on a pile of data here but it’s not evident what it actually could be used for,” he adds.

Here’s hoping someone comes up with a strategy to save this radical antisocial app.

In the meantime, RIP Rando.

rando-triptych

“A lot of people have expressed how much they really seemed to love the application,” adds Lövrin. “We’re really happy that our users have been enjoying it… It’s very mixed feelings having to shut it down. I’ve been going from huge relief to deep sadness” — the relief referring only to the lifting of the one-man-app-support burden, of course.

“It’s been a great learning experience for us, on a technical perspective, to handle what has been, at times, quite a lot of data,” he adds. “Even though it’s not on Facebook and Instagram level of data it’s still more than we’re used to so obviously there’s a new experience that we can bring in to both our own IP in future and also client work.”

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