The “personal safety” app Citizen recently sent me a heartwarming — aspirationally heartwarming, anyway — short video. I’d been using the app for about a month, during which it fed me all kinds of alerts on happenings nearby: Four Gunshots Heard. Two Men Fighting. Report of Woman With Box Cutter Making Threats. For some, Citizen had attached videos taken by other users, mostly boring shots of police cars and ambulances clustered by the sides of roads. But this video, titled “Missing Teenage Girl Found,” was different. There were amateur phone clips, yes, but also animated graphics and voice-over narration. The video told a story, and it gave Citizen the starring role.
In brief: A young girl goes missing in Brooklyn. Her mother calls Protect, Citizen’s on-demand help line, available to users who fork over $19.99 per month. (Free users may also make similar reports.) An agent has the mother record an appeal, which, according to the video, goes out to 127,000 Citizen users in a five-mile radius. “I’m just pleading with the community,” she says. “If you know something, please, please let us know.”
The next day, a Citizen user posts a comment saying he thinks he saw the girl at a particular address. This tip gets flagged in OnAir, Citizen’s live-broadcast section, where talking heads employed by the company analyze unfolding incidents with the cheery gravitas of local news anchors. The information is forwarded to the girl’s mother, and the segment ends with the two clutching each other on the sidewalk. Heart and prayer-hands emojis float up the screen, digital artifacts of Citizen users’ real-time responses.
As a general principle, it’s great for missing children to be reunited with their parents, and it should warm our hearts to see these reunions facilitated by community members. But this video didn’t warm my heart. It gave me the willies. At first I blamed the narrator, a detached British voice that, on “Black Mirror,” would be shorthand for android psychopathy. So I turned the sound off and watched again.
Still totally creepy.
Citizen, like most apps bankrolled by millions in venture capital, has always presumably had, in addition to its stated goals, one extra: signing up more accounts. On this front it has been a resounding success. Since starting out as a New York product in 2016, it has attracted more than 10 million users in at least 60 cities. But success brings scrutiny, and start-ups with exploding popularity sometimes dance from one version of themselves to another, dodging criticism while hunting, always, for more users.
Early on, for instance, Sp0n, the company that developed Citizen, had to sidestep the perception that constantly alerting users to potential criminal behavior nearby would encourage vigilantes. It didn’t help that when the app first appeared, it was called … Vigilante. After rebranding as Citizen the next year, the company seemed to focus its messaging less on the user as crime fighter and more on the idea of everyday people making informed decisions. A 2017 promotional video dramatized a mother’s receiving an alert that a knife-wielding man has been spotted in a park — the very park to which she is headed! She wheels her stroller in another direction, relieved.
This identity drew new criticism. If a business’s purpose is to make you feel that it helps you avoid danger, it has an incentive to persuade you that danger is lurking around every corner. According to an investigation by Vice Media’s Motherboard site, even the company’s chief executive has admitted that Citizen bombards its clients with alerts — a barrage that strikes me as especially pernicious now that the company sells Protect subscriptions, with access to employees who can contact authorities, reach out to other users or “simply stay on a call with you until you feel safe again.” One employee told Mother Jones, “I felt like we’re not only distributing the heroin for free, we’re selling the Narcan.”
Last year, Citizen started sending “Magic Moments” videos like “Missing Teenage Girl Found.” These feel, more than anything, like yet another attempt at redefinition. “Look,” they say, “we’re not just a geolocated TikTok for ambient criminality. We’re community, connection, happy endings.”
My reaction to the video, I think, had to do with the way its superficial aping of journalism collided with its total absence of curiosity. It tries to look and move like the evening news, borrowing conventions that can signify an ethical seriousness about fact-finding; the OnAir hosts even speak in the distinctive cadences of news personalities. But these journalistic trappings fail to disguise the story’s flimsiness. Why was the girl missing in the first place? The clip accommodates benign explanations (thoughtlessness) and troubling ones (crisis, abduction) but settles on no explanation at all. It wants you alarmed (child gone!) and then soothed (child found!), and it wants you to associate the journey from one to the other with Citizen. But its approach feels uncanny. The story looks real but lacks the texture of reality, and the high stakes of a missing child, intended to give the video power, only make its plastic blitheness infuriating. Other Magic Moments struggle to make a case for the app at all; often they consist of users’ relaying first-responder activity to one another, contributing nothing to the outcome.
The company’s desires are the same ones shared by so many platforms: to snag eyeballs and turn the world into a participatory reality show. Future efforts to satisfy them may well resemble their predecessors. That Vice investigation established that the app’s “user footage” is sometimes generated by paid staff members. (The company says those employees are always identified.) As recently as May, Citizen published the name of a man it identified (incorrectly, it turns out) as an arsonist responsible for a California wildfire and offered a $30,000 bounty for his capture. The Vigilante days felt not so far behind.
All start-ups pivot and swerve in search of a sustainable path forward. (Citizen has yet to make more money that it spends.) But it’s unnerving to watch one do that improvised dance in the socially crucial space of community safety — traditionally the domain less of tech firms than of government, with supporting roles for civic groups and journalism. “Missing Teenage Girl” is part of an ongoing experiment in making viewers feel a certain way not just about an app but about their safety, their neighbors, their cities. If it works — that is, if it serves Citizen’s bottom line — the company will surely repeat it. Otherwise, it will try something else: new alerts, telling new stories about the world, stitched together from selectively curated scraps of reality. The subtext, of course, will stay constant. Sign up, join in, upgrade, renew. Stay on the phone until you feel safe.
Source photographs: Screen grabs from Citizen; Getty Images.
Peter C. Baker is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill., and author of the novel “Planes,” to be published by Knopf.