It’s a familiar scenario. You’re out to dinner and all your friends’ faces are illuminated by the iPhone they’re half-trying to hide under the table. Maybe they’re scrolling through Instagram, learning what other, lesser, friends are eating, or they’re sending a maddening “I’ll call you after dinner!!” text.
But choose to leave your phone at home or ignore your texts, and by the time you check it your mom has already filed a missing person report or you’ve found yourself in a surprise fight with your slighted significant other. It’s a lose-lose.
Here’s how it works: BRB users set a timer to show how long they’ll be away from their phones and then broadcast a message via Twitter, text, or Facebook to their friends letting them know they’ll be checked out.
Using technology to save people from technology isn’t a novel idea. Freedom, an app that allows users to log themselves off the Internet for set periods of time to boost productivity, has been a college-student staple for years.
But BRB, which launched last week, offers a twist: a nostalgic nod to the days of AOL Instant Messenger. There’s a customizable away message to inform your friends you’re not around.
“Half the fun of AIM was away messages," says David Krevitt, co-founder of BRB. “It’s a way for people to communicate without actually being there.”
Away messages can be broadcast via Facebook, Twitter, or text, and BRB’s early adopters compete to make it to the publicly available “Best Of” list of away messages. (Krevitt declined to say exactly how many people have downloaded the app.)
Recent ones include “phone is dead—man down!” and “saving lives.”
And BRB may be a boon for high schoolers who are now the same age BRB’s founders were during their own AIM-obsessed days.
Krevitt says many teenagers have downloaded the app as a way to tell their friends they’re in class and can’t talk. Since many schools ban cell phones in the classroom altogether, students can put an away message explaining that they’ll be incommunicado for a few hours.
And BRB can be an antidote to the familiar, often boring cycle of checking Instagram every few minutes, only to find another beach-vacation picture. With no set filter templates or hashtags, “the away message is a blank slate,” says co-founder Noah Levy, “and doesn’t lend itself easily to repetition.”
Krevitt and Levy admit there’s space for bragging about what you’re doing instead of checking your phone, even as you’re trying to escape social media. But that comes with the territory.
“Any time you give people space to say what they’re doing, there is space to brag,” says Levy, “but we’ve seen a fairly limited amount of bragging so far. Mostly it’s been funny and genuine communication. We haven’t had people checking out and saying, "I’m on the yacht in St-Tropez, can’t talk now.”
So here’s what the dinner party of the future will look like, if Krevitt and Levy have their way. Instead of one person taking out his or her phone, which is a signal that it’s OK for everyone else to start texting, one person will check out and everyone else will check out, too.
Still, Krevitt and Levy say they love their iPhones and aren’t trying to create a connection-less world.
“The goal is to avoid unwanted outside communication,” Krevitt says. “The point has never been to throw the phone out the window.”