You might think that with social media options such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and others, teens would have enough online friends. But apparently you’d be wrong. In fact, an entirely new class of apps is emerging euphemistically called “social discovery” apps. These apps, such as Hoop, Wink, Yubo and Monkey, piggyback on Snapchat to allow users to make new “friends.”
Except, of course, they’re not necessarily friends at all. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see how these apps could be abused.
Among those apps, Hoop has garnered the most notoriety, with app downloads topping 2.5 million users within a week after its February launch. In a nutshell, Hoop gives Snapchat users an interface to find “new friends” who share their interests and who are theoretically the same age.
The app has been described as Tinder for teens, because the format closely resembles the dating app in the way it invites users to either swipe right or reject potential matches.
Here’s how it works: Users begin by linking their Snapchat accounts to Hoop. Once they set up a profile, they can populate it with biographical info and pictures. Other users with similar preferences can view their profile. If both parties accept the other, the users then switch to Snapchat, where they’re able to become friends there.
Hoop co-founders Alexi Pourret and Lucas Gervais insist that the app is intended to “meet everyone’s needs, from connecting people from different cultures to helping lonely people to feel better to simply growing your Snapchat community.” Regarding the suggestion that Hoop is a dating app, Gervais told Tech Crunch, “We are not a meeting or dating app. We simply offer an easy way to make new Snap friends.”
And in a separate interview with the Wall Street Journal, Gervais also pushed back against the accusation that Hoop helped people connect with “strangers.” “I wouldn’t use the word strangers,” the 26-year-old Frenchman said. “They have the same kind of hobbies; they practice the same sports or activities. That’s it. I think they feel comfortable to make friends with people that they don’t know in real life but they have the same profile in the Snapchat life. Or the internet life.”
Gervais can make that claim because technically Hoop doesn’t give out personal contact info or location information. But once users move back to Snapchat, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how such information could be exchanged. Like all social media networks, younger users (those ages 13 to 17) are supposed to get parental permission before downloading. And like all social networks, verifying ages is next to impossible for young users looking to easily circumvent that supposed safeguard.
Could a tween or teen with a desire to connect via Hoop with genuinely likeminded new “friends” who share their interests? Sure. Could an older person impersonating a teen easily subvert the app founders’ stated desire to connect help people by “growing their Snapchat community”? Absolutely. In fact, the Wall Street Journal titled its article on Hoop and Yubo (a similar app), “Don’t Talk to Strangers? These Apps Encourage It.”
In an expose for Cleveland NBC affiliate WRCBtv, Jamey Tucker describes what happened after setting up an account as a 25-year-old guy (which he clearly isn’t):
Browsing through the photos on my screen, most everyone was in the 24-26 age group. There were young women posing in front of their home, at school or work but there were quite a few who posted photos of themselves in thongs or underwear. While some stated they were looking for a relationship or new friends, there were several who posted they were looking for a hookup. A few stated they were looking for sex and asked that you contact them by email or their Snapchat.
I received four requests for my Snap within the first few minutes of opening the account. When I accepted one, I received a Snapchat message of a woman performing a sex act and asking if I wanted videos and photos to contact them by text message.
So while a 13-year-old might be able to control what information they’re sharing about themselves, there appears to be no way to keep images and messages from appearing on their phones from other users.
And if the potential for interactions like those wasn’t problematic enough already, Hoop generates income by requiring users to interact continually with the app in various ways to earn more “swipes.” Tech Crunch contributor Josh Constantine writes,
Rather than being able to endlessly “swipe right” and approach people, Hoop limits your asks by making you spend its in-app “diamonds” currency to reach out. After about 10 requests to chat, you’ll have to earn more diamonds. You do that by sharing and getting friends to open your invite link to the app, adding people on Snapchat that you meet on Hoop, logging in each day, taking a survey, watching a video ad and completing offers by signing up for streaming services or car insurance providers. It also trades diamonds for rating Hoop in the App Store, though that might run afoul of Apple’s rules.
It doesn’t take long for a tech-savvy parent to see how these “social discovery” apps could lead to some unwanted discoveries—including exposure to sexual content and potentially to adults posing as teens with an intent to exploit young and naïve users. This Hoop is simply not one that parents are going to want their teens jumping through.