The Boyfriend App, by Katie Sise (Balzer + Bray, 2013)

When Audrey McCarthy sees an opportunity to change her family’s fortunes and win a college scholarship for herself by developing the next great mobile app, she accidentally sets off a firestorm of confusion and not-so-wacky hijinks.

Her idea is simple: create an app which will find each user the perfect partner based on complicated algorithms and detailed profiles.  She enlists the aid of her fashion-obsessed cousin and her fellow tech geeks (collectively nicknamed the “troglodytes” by the popular clique) to put things into motion.  And for a while, things look promising.  A few early love matches, a celebrity tweet or two, and she’s on the fast track to winning the contest.

And then things go…wrong. Because love isn’t something you can guarantee just because a computer or smartphone or mobile app tells you so. Frustrated and desperate, Audrey takes advantage of a chance discovery to retool her app.  The Boyfriend App 2.0, now with guaranteed love.  That’s when it all blows up in her face.  Can she find a way to get out of this situation?

The Boyfriend App is a strange story, and one might well accuse it of multiple personalities.  It starts off as a fairly innocent romantic comedy, one of those slice-of-life teenage tales, where the plucky geek heroine uses her technological expertise to create the award-winning app which will win her the scholarship, the fame and fortune, and the boyfriend.  At last, she’ll show her ex-best friend and queen bee of the mean girls, her true worth.  Cue slow clap and maybe an speech at graduation.

Sise, however, puts some subtle clues into play along the way, and halfway through she yanks the rug out from under the readers with some strange and interesting twists.  The story goes from “romantic comedy for the technophile” to “evil corporation using technology just shy of science fiction to do nefarious things, and only our heroine is aware.”  It goes from awkward tale of redemption  to something reminiscent of Cory Doctorow’s YA work, with the clever hacker teens fighting the system.  Cue dirty secrets, blackmail, industrial espionage, revenge.

 Things I like about this story:  The cast is diverse and multi-dimensional.  One of Audrey’s friends is Indian, and pretty cool in his own geeky way.  (Kind of like a much more confident Raj from the Big Bang Theory, without the racial stereotyping.)  Another is Hispanic with a speech disorder, and she’s played straight, not for laughs or as an object of pity or derision (save by the mean girls, who hate everyone.)  When Audrey creates her app, she acknowledges that it can be for “girls wanting girlfriends, girls wanting boyfriends, boys wanting boyfriends, and boys wanting girlfriends.”  In short, everyone.  And later, we see the app bringing same-sex couples together.  It’s not even something to remark upon in the story, it’s accepted and they all move on. 

 I also like the oddly parallel nature of the setting to our own world.  Google and YouTube and Twitter all exist, but instead of Apple, we get the ubiquitous Public Corporation, with its social networking site (Public Party), music download platform (buyJams) media deice (buyPlayer) and smartphone (buyPhone). With the reach, versatility, and power of a vastly less ethical Apple, they pretty much rule the roost, with an especially strong presence in South Bend, Indiana, where the story is set (in the shadow of Notre Dame).  It grants the book an extra step of remove from our own world, which comes in handy when trying to swallow some of what goes down.

 I like that Sise doesn’t shy away from the nuts and bolts of the technological side of things.  Her protagonist and mainly of the secondary characters are computer experts, programmers, hackers, and geeks, and it shows.  The story as a whole treats them with a fair amount of respect and honesty, and it’s easy to root for the good guys.  This really is a book for the hackers and programmers and gadget lovers, the ones who’re comfortable with HTTP and backdoors and coding.  Sise either knows her stuff, or has at least done her research.  (A quick glance at her bio informs me that she’s a jewelry designer and television host, and a fashion consultant.  So she at least made a stab at making her techno babble sound realistic.)

 So far, I’ve said some very nice things about a book I rather enjoyed.  Now, however, I have to address the things I found problematic.  Beyond this point, there be spoilers, because one cannot speak of them otherwise.

 Audrey’s first app is designed so that everyone fills out a profile, and then the app uses GPS and other features to seek out all compatible profiles within five miles.  If a compatible profile is within a certain range, say one hundred yards, the app will play a sound and give the female user an arrow and GSP directions to their love match.  (No explanation on how it works if same sex couples are involved, or who gets designated the girl for the purposes at hand.) So theoretically, the power is in the hands of the girl to seek out their love match… the unsuspecting guy who may or may not want anything to do with the girl with whom he’s been matched. 

 I’m pretty sure there have been apps along those lines in the past.  Maybe not specifically dating apps, more like data aggregation programs for smartphones, but they all led to the exact same issue I have here, one that’s never addressed: the potential for stalking and abuse.  After all, these profiles rely on honest answers, and they allow you to surrender a lot of privacy without fully realizing the consequences. It’s almost a relief when this app goes down in flames.  For every genuine match, there had to have been dozens of misfires.  As Audrey herself realizes, you can’t necessarily trust technology where matters of the heart are concerned.  But the Stalker App is right out….

 The Boyfriend App 2.0 is downright terrifying.  Audrey develops it after learning that Public is using an inaudible sound frequency through their products to essentially control teenagers and get them to buy more stuff.  She reworks the technology to hijack the frequency and create an app that literally makes the target fall in love with the user.

 I’ll pause.  I’ll let that sink in. 

 Audrey creates an app that makes the target fall in love with the user.  And keys it to only work for female profiles. 

 And then she not only uses it, she releases it into the wild.

 Do I really need to explain why this is a spectacularly bad idea?  The only reason the idea isn’t both terrifying and repugnant is because it’s being fielded by a teenage girl in what’s supposed to be a semi-comic manner.  Because she wants to win a contest and save her family and get back at the big evil exploitive corporation which smeared her dead father’s reputation, it’s all hand waved as good fun.  I still think of this as the Rape App, and I started twitching the moment Audrey honestly thought it was a good idea.

 Now, perhaps I’m overdrinking things a little.  Who wouldn’t love an app that tells you when a potential love match is close by? Imagine how easy it would be to meet people if your phone could tell you when they’re in the vicinity?  (And how awkward it would be to find them in the restroom, or with their current girlfriend, or doing any one of a thousand private or embarrassing things…)  Who wouldn’t love an app that lets you control the emotions and desires of anyone you desire (provided they fulfill certain criteria as set out in the story).  Because teenagers can be trusted with that sort of power, right?  (I was a teenager.  The answer is Oh HELL No.)

 So there’s the problem.  Here we have a lively, entertaining, thoughtful comedy for the techies and geeks and trogs, and it’s wrapped around some profoundly disturbing issues that undermine a lot of the goodwill otherwise inspired by the colorful cast of characters and worthwhile plot.  I mean, I like Audrey and her friends.  I love how they interact with one another.  I like some of the couples that come together as a result of the story.  I wanted to root for Audrey and company to find happiness and success…and yet I was expecting the NSA to “vanish” her at the end of the book.

 Clearly, Sise has a lot of potential as a YA author.  There’s a measure of depth and complexity to what could have been a total fluff piece, and there was plenty to love here. I just hope that the themes and decisions made as part of the story spark some genuine discussion as well.


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