Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

Romantimatic — the little app I wrote to remind the distracted or forgetful to text nice things to their significant other — is a month old today.

It’s been an interesting month.

The app has sold just over 875 copies, across a couple of dozen countries, making me about $885. It has a four-and-a-half-star average in the App Store, and I’ve received a handful of enthusiastic e-mails. It has been the subject of coverage from Mashable, the CBC, Lifehacker and Kottke.

It has also been the target of a medium-level Internet pile-on. For those of you who don’t fully understand the scope and scale of the Internet, even a medium-level pile-on falls squarely into the “Holy crap” category of human interaction. The app has been flayed not for its implementation but for its conception, often in the language of the Web, by which I mean the most hyperbolic terms possible.

Derision from Cult of Mac. Disapproval from Esquire. The accusation that my goofy project has killed romance as we know it from Elle. Fifteen hundred words of high-minded arm-chair psychology and moral indignation from the Atlantic, including the comparison of the app’s users to — reductio ad absurdum — those who need reminding not to harm animals. And thousands and thousands of excoriating tweets.

Like I said, it’s been an interesting month.

The criticisms, with varying degrees, all come down to the same sentiment: If you need or want this app, you are a bad person, and you should feel bad about yourself.

This is not a rational argument — it’s an emotional one. I don’t believe, in fact, there is a rational argument to be made here, against the app. It’s not evil, by any sane definition of the word. It’s not hurtful. It does not do damage to the user or to others. Everyone who has argued so vehemently against it could have just as easily quietly noted its existence, decided it wasn’t for them, and moved on, without moral obligation or qualm.

But this is the Internet, and such things do not happen.

I’ve been around long enough to develop the three essential tools that on-line life requires — a sense of humor, a sense of perspective and a thick skin — and they’ve served me well here. The criticisms amuse more than trouble, and it’s been interesting being on the receiving end of one of the many, many hullabaloos that roil the Web every day. I do not feel a need to defend myself or the app or the people who are happily using it. We’ll go our way and you — with that disapproving frown — will go yours.

But I am intrigued by the reaction. With the opportunity to simply let this particular leaf on this particular river float by, why condemn? Doubly so when nothing is at stake? How could a few thousand lines of computer code provoke such a response, especially when there is at least a subset of the population who seems to really appreciate those exact same few thousand lines?

An experiment: What if the app had been to help people diet? Let’s say, just pure flight-of-fancy here, that I’m a fat guy, instead of the male underwear model with incredible abs that I clearly am. Would an app to remind people not to eat be vivisected in the same way that Romantimatic has? Would the people who use it be vilified as weak-willed? Thoughtless? Hollow? My guess is not. My guess is they’d get inspirational TV shows.

So what’s the difference? Why is mechanical help with relationships out of bounds, but help with weight control not? Why is one type of self-improvement aid worse than the other?

The difference, for me, comes down to empathy. We — the majority of us — need help with our weight. (Note to international readers: I’m an American. Seriously, the majority of us need help with our weight.) It’s an easy enough problem to understand. Ice cream is delicious, exercise sucks, and so a little nudge in the right direction is appropriate, even appreciated.

But we — the majority of us — apparently do not need help remembering to text our significant other. (Or — cough — think we don’t.)

And that’s the difference, isn’t it? What we can imagine ourselves doing, or needing, or wanting. Those people who don’t need the help feel free to judge those who do.

They judge us by our failures and not our desire to improve. They judge us by our tools and not what we can accomplish with them. They judge us by their own standards, without a breath given to the possibility that a different perspective might exist.

Which is pretty much the Internet in a nutshell, isn’t it? Exposed to the entire spectrum of human enthusiasms, it’s basically impossible not to judge. Our empathy overloads and gives up and we sit, staring at the screen aghast, that somebody, somewhere might actually believe that what they’re doing is OK, is acceptable, is even appropriate.

Everybody is somebody else’s monster.

But I’m not defending the app, remember. This isn’t about the app. It’s about how we — all of us — use the Internet, how we interact with each other. I’m just as guilty as anybody who assed-wise about Romantimatic. You can check my Twitter history and see. I wouldn’t wish an Internet fusillade on anybody — well, almost anybody — but being subject to one has been instructional and humbling. How am I any different?

This isn’t some mealy-mouthed plea for all of us to get along, to say that criticism doesn’t have an important place, on-line or otherwise. Critics and criticism are powerful, vital forces in any endeavor. But criticism should have some foundation in a shared world, a common set of resources and interests. I mock Republicans because I believe their policies do damage to the country I love. I criticize start-up culture because I believe it’s corrosive to technological progress and the people who create it. I rage at mass shootings and the people who defend the status quo because there are dead children littering the streets. These things affect me, are deeply important to me, so they require judgement and — sometimes — condemnation.

That’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is how addictive the righteousness that comes from that condemnation is, and how we will apparently turn to any source we can find for it — even when that source is not evil or harmful or part of any world we exist in or understand.

A few years ago, a photo made the rounds. It was taken from the back, its subject unaware. He was a fat guy wearing a jeans-jacket, and on the back he had stenciled the name of his heavy metal band. It was a sloppy and amateurish job. The photo earned a lot of mocking comments in my circle, including from me. Ha ha, look at the fat guy with the rock-and-roll pretensions. Look at him. Looooook.

And then someone said, “I think he’s awesome. He’s found something he loves, and he thinks it’s great enough to share with the world. This guy is a hero.”

And… Oh, my God. That’s right. That’s exactly right. Who was I to judge, much less judge publicly? Maybe his music was terrible, but so what? It wasn’t for me. It was for him, and his friends, and his fans. Nobody was seeking my opinion, because it would be ill-informed and emotional, because those are the only opinions I could possibly have.

I was just pumping poison into the atmosphere, to feel good about myself, for another hit of self-righteousness. I was what was wrong, because I vomited out disapproval — could only vomit out disapproval — without intent or willingness to even attempt to understand.

If nothing else, I’m grateful for the reaction to Romantimatic, because it reminded me of that story, and how hard it is to be empathetic, and how desperately important it is. If anything comes from all this — aside from the $885 in ice cream I’m going to buy myself — I hope that it makes me a little more generous with my judgement, a little more kind with my opinion, a little more reserved with my disapproval.

Maybe there’s an app that can remind me. It looks like there’s a big market for it.

Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.

Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "Things I Learned About My Dad" and "Rainy Day Fun and Games for Toddler and Total Bastard").

My e-mail address is I'd love to hear from you!

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