The 3 conditions of app infectiousness and why all apps tend toward abomination.
An app is an unnecessary work unless it produces a great human feeling. Apps transmit consciousness into feeling. A great app will unite diverse people into one feeling, and that feeling will align with their life’s purpose.
Or so would say Leo Tolstoy.
The great author wrote a thin — for Tolstoy — tract titled What is Art? that applies equally well to app-making.
What is app-making if not the art of breaking through the clutter, like Picasso onto a crowded art scene?
To Tolstoy, a work of art exists for one reason: to convey a great human feeling to the largest possible audience, and this feeling must be the sincere and unique feeling of the artist. The consumers of the artwork experience this feeling, uniquely to themselves, and by so experiencing it enter into community with all the other experiencers.
“It is this liberation of the person from his isolation from others, from his loneliness, this merging of the person with others, that constitutes the chief attractive force and property of art.” — Tolstoy
So it is with great apps. This infection must spread far and wide — through infection lies liberation.
We app makers talk in the language of infection. We measure virality and retention as tools of the craft, but beneath it all lies something simpler. Every app must answer this question: does it convey the unique feeling the app maker wished to express?
Tolstoy tells the story of a great master “correcting a student’s sketch. The master touched it up a little here and there, and the poor, dead sketch suddenly came to life. ‘Why you just touched it up a little bit and everything changed,’ said one of the students. Said the master: ‘Art begins where that little bit begins.’”
So it is with every great app.
Look at Bumble. Can there be a higher-minded mission for any social app then to coax world-weary, love-starved cave-dwellers into the open … and then to reward them for it? Bumble is a work of art, but what made it so can be mistaken for the tiniest edit: the woman must chat first, but behind that tweak resides a whole world. So it is with TikTok — a masterpiece of algorithm-friendly design. So it is with Gas — a viral masterstroke.
The task of the app maker is “to find those infinitely small moments of which the work of art is composed.”
The great app expresses a worldview. It expresses the app maker’s essence. It comes to life in a years-long fever. It represents a craving. It is an all-consuming, world-confirming vision that cares only for the one thing it must do: infect the world with a great human feeling.
There are no books to read, no masters to copy. To be great is to be exceptional, peerless, the simplest expression of a unique feeling. No pixel, no text can be out of place. The great app is an organic, indivisible, uneditable whole that “differs from the rest like a diamond differs from glass.”
Tolstoy’s art exists on a continuum. The magnitude of its “infectiousness” is the measure of its greatness, and 3 conditions determine infectiousness:
- The particularity of the feeling conveyed
- The greater or lesser clarity with which the feeling is conveyed
- The artist’s sincerity — the greater or lesser force with which the artist herself experiences the feelings she conveys
These are the same conditions for great apps. A great app is particular, it is focused, and this particularity and clarity are chiseled by the sincerity of the app maker’s feeling. The app exists only to convey this feeling, and the app does so in the simplest, most-focused way.
“In the absence of one of these conditions,” says Tolstoy, “the work will belong not to art but to its counterfeits. If the work does not convey the individual particularity of the artist’s feeling … if it is incomprehensibly expressed … if it does not proceed from the [app maker’s] inner need, then it is not a work of art. But if all three conditions are present, even in the smallest degree, then the work, even if weak, is a work of art.”
BeReal is a work of art. Its great human feeling, an authentic moment in an overly curated world, is conjured by the wholeness of its vision. The app uniquely solves a modern problem, allowing the infected to participate in damn-what-I-look-like moments of authenticity, however brief. The particularity and clarity of the BeReal solution are testaments to the sincerity of the app maker’s feeling.
Spotify is another great app, that rarest of masterwork that grows so tremendously in feature set over 17 years, while surrendering none of its greatness. Look at its navigation, just 3 tabs, a middle finger to the feature bloat weighing down lesser apps, requiring 5, or gasp, even 6 tabs to communicate just 1% of Spotify’s scope.
To be truly important, an app must not only convey the app-maker’s feeling, but that feeling must flow with the rushing, ever-changing torrent of society’s interpretation of the purpose of life.
Apps evolve in ways that a painting does not. A great Vermeer is a great Vermeer 100 years hence. A great app starts off as a Vermeer, but countless touchups in different hands leave it resembling not art, but its opposite, an abomination.
All apps tend toward abomination. It is the natural state, because evolution, competition, and the passage of time lead to countless compromises of the original vision. Apps seldom are resurgent, because once compromised, they cannot be de-compromised. Imagine — and shudder — at a Vermeer defaced by a dozen hands and then trying to set it right. Now go open Facebook.
But all true app makers have hope, however often disappointed. True app makers have faith in clarity, beauty, simplicity, and economy. There’s always the exception, the Duolingo, as it were, the one app in a thousand that rekindles growth by radically understanding its own purpose.
App-making is not pleasure or amusement. It is a great and serious thing.
App-making, like art-making, proceeds by evolution. If art is the history of the feelings experienced by past peoples, and therefore the chronicling and forcing out of lower feelings for higher feelings, so app-making evolves, responding to apps past & present, masterpieces and abominations alike. The great app forces out the lower feelings of abominations with higher feelings.
The great app is almost never a punch in the face. It meets us where we are. It’s not a wholesale deviation from past patterns. It is the next step.
After all, we are human. Give us what we already have but make it novel!
Such is the task of the app maker and of the artist.
A great app is born in its own time but augurs the next. It speaks to our divisions, but it points the way to atonement.