App Debt: How Kim Kardashian and Uber Will Bankrupt Us All
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the celebrity role-playing game from the Seinfeld of reality stars, is currently the fifth most popular free iPhone app on Apple's charts. It's also the fifth-highest grossing. One analyst predicted revenue of $200 million this year. But how many of the fame gamers that put it there have any idea what they spent to get on the C-list?
Between June and December of last year, I squandered more than $76 buying extra lives in Candy Crush, which is still holding steady as the third top grossing app on iOS. If I had waited the length of one episode of Keeping Up with Kardashians, I could have gotten a life for free. At the time, however, 99 cents felt like a small fee for instant gratification. A cheap salve for twitchy fingers. The game was most appealing when I was on deadline. For Candy Crush to work as a procrastination tool, I needed to keep the distraction going. I only registered the total damage this week, when I added up iTunes email receipts.
Virtual lives weren't the only items I purchased from the iPortal in my pocket, either: I hangrily clicked $206 over to Seamless in May (unconscionable) and wasted $262 on UberX in June (obscene). During a month-long reporting trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles this spring, I essentially wrote Uber a $453 check with my thumbs (unspeakable). Seriously, let's never speak of it again.
To be clear, these indulgences were beyond my pay grade. I stayed in the same cramped Brooklyn studio for four years because I got a good deal, I only use a debit card, I buy my jeans from Urban Outfitters, and here I was running up the difference with a few clicks of my phone.
Adults with a loose claim to self-sufficiency can still recite the cost of their monthly rent, their cable bill, student loan bills, smartphone bill, auto insurance, the seasonal range of electricity consumption, annual penalty for breeding, etc. When charges are deducted automatically, the numbers get fuzzier. For the spendthrift, monthly expenditures on food, drink, travel, and clothing are more nebulous still. But impulse-driven, one-press smartphone purchases are the easiest to lose track of, which makes apps even worse enablers than the psychic who stuck Winona Ryder with a $406 telephone bill.
Out in the real world, a number of obstacles stand in the way of you spending money: the distance from the dressing room to the cash register, for example, or the time it takes to get from your home to a store. Credit cards erase one barrier—the need to have actual cash in your hand or even in your bank account—but mobile apps have torn down many more. The minute it takes to pull out your Mastercard and enter the number into an online menu allows for the possibility of better judgment, but the half second it takes to press your thumb down on a smartphone screen leaves no time for regret.
To avoid giving their targets a chance to rethink the purchase, software developers try to make buying goods from your phone feel as "frictionless" as possible. One of the features of that silky smooth, stubble-free consumerism? The unseemly parts of the transaction occur out of sight. You can watch your UberX driver inch towards you second-by-second on Google Maps like some ascending angel, but there's no meter on the dashboard to monitor the rising red numbers. The angst of calculating base fare, plus trip, plus 25 percent tip for every block traveled disappears. Likewise, the majority of online shoppers close the tab after filling their virtual shopping carts—content just to go through the motions. But top-grossing games skip that extra step. Once they have your credit/debit card, you just tap on the gorilla glass. Consider it a mobile upgrade on Amazon's patented one-click technique.
Facebook, which made most of its $2.91 billion in revenue last quarter from advertising, plays with your emotions. Candy Crush, which made $606.7 million in the first quarter of 2014, performs psychological experiments on your wallet. And the science behind it has only gotten more insidious since your high school frenemy begged for help with her virtual farm.
It's also no coincidence that both Uber and Seamless originated as item lines on a corporate spending account. Before it was rebranded as a beacon of the sharing economy and added an "affordable" alternative to taxis, Uber billed itself a democratized luxury. It's motto is still: "Everyone's Private Driver." The service was something Midtown or Wall Street workers could expense if they stayed too late at the office. Meanwhile, after six months of working in a law firm, Jason Finger came up with the idea for Seamless as a way to simplify reimbursement paperwork for white collar workers. This was in 1999, before anyone started abusing the word "disrupt." SeamlessWeb, as it was called then, paid restaurants and billed employers later. Now average consumers without an allowance are dipping into their discretionary income to meet $15 delivery minimums, except the bill goes to them.
Have you ever watched a bunch of recent college grads order lunch from Seamless every week for a year? It's kind of scary.
We like to live above our means; smartphone apps stoke those aspirations. They're designed to press the right pleasure centers in our Internet-addled brains, notes Grantland staff writer and grown man Alex Pappademas, the sheepish owner of 460 K-stars in Kim Kardashian Hollywood that set him back $40 U.S.:
The cycle is always the same, whether it's Doodle Jump or Angry Birdsor Bejeweled or 2048 or Candy Crush Saga: I download "out of curiosity," and within half a day I'm sneaking off to the bathroom to feed the monkey and spending actual real-world money on extra DoodleBonks and selling my daughter's toys on the sidewalk and (eventually) deleting the app from my phone, sick and ashamed.
The Suze Orman of smartphones isn't yelling at us about habit-forming app behavior or this new futuristic form of flagrant spending because it's a nothing compared to the other factors that lead to crippling debt. A study released this week by the Urban Institute found that 35 percent of Americans have debt in collection. Those 77 million people owe an average of $5,200 including debt from "from credit card bills, child support, medical bills, utility bills, parking tickets or membership fees."
Since I use a debit option rather than credit, in-app spending technically isn't debt for me. It's just siphoning money from my potential savings—one among many reasons I might live to see the Singularity, but not afford to participate in it. Experian, the credit report provider, released a study in November about the difficulty millennials have managing debt. When I asked Experian, a spokesperson said they didn't track smartphone purchases. If there was "research available about ecommerce happening through apps," she said, "this data would not have debt dollars associated with it."
Even without the numbers, this new way to waste money warrants our attention. A Gartner report from September said mobile commerce is in its infancy, predicting that "in-app purchases will account for a full 48 percent of app store revenue by 2017, up from 11 percent in 2012." Total revenue from mobile apps was $18 billion in 2012. The report projected it to reach $26 billion in 2013. It's a slippery slope from I don't see a taxi, let me call an Uber to Surge pricing is only 1.5x, I think I can swing it.
The weirdest aspect of the billions that come from feeding money to apps is the theatrical way in which we humblebrag our not-so-secret obsession. A sort of spending selfie, if you will. Mobile gaming is a hits-driven business—just ask Zynga, and those hits are helped along by social media, the fastest peer pressure distribution network known to man. It makes about as much sense for Apple to feature "Top Grossing" as one of the three rankings in the App Store as it does for movie-goers to care about box office results. But everybody likes a winner.
An hour without energy on Kim Kardashian Hollywood is like a year without rain
— sidney horton (@sidnugget) July 28, 2014
Yes I just bought stars on the Kim kardashian game... Oh and I only got it an hour ago #bankrupt
— Molly Jarrett (@MollyJarrett) July 23, 2014
I've spent $130 on in-app purchases for the Kim Kardashian game but now I'm an A-list celeb with a nice boyfriend pic.twitter.com/6fmSxDZsFB
— Sam Montgomery (@sammontgomery) July 11, 2014
Not playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood feels like you're missing out on contemporary culture. Are people whom you respect playing it because it's subversively witty? Because they fear technological obsolescence if they don't share the same taste as a teen? By most accounts, the Kim Kardashian game and Candy Crush invoke the same compulsive anxiety as the lizard-like act of darting your eyes between feeds: news, work chat, gChat, email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, IRC, Snapchat, WhatsApp, repeat. If distracted is our only m.o., do we crave that jittery feeling during our downtime as well? Is it more "fun" when the urgency is fake? When the game is winnable? I have no idea. I only know I won't have the willpower to resist if I start.
I moved to San Francisco permanently seven weeks ago and thankfully Seamless is useless here unless you want Indian food, pizza, Chinese food, high delivery minimums and long wait times. (There's a reason they come up with so many dumb do-it-for-me apps—it's a pretty inconvenient city.) After running into surge pricing at seemingly every hour I needed to get somewhere quickly, I've also curbed my UberX usage. Instead, I switched from slow-poke Muni to slightly faster BART. Oh and I downloaded Lyft, the ride-sharing app that bills itself as "your friend with a car." So far I've spent $132 in two weeks.
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[Illustration by Jim Cooke]