The first rule of being a Londoner: always stand on the right of the escalator. The second: never, ever, ever talk to strangers on the tube. The cathedral-like silence on our public transport, even at the height of rush hour, is legendary. Anyone who’s moved to London from somewhere chattier (ie basically anywhere) will have noticed it straight away, and for many Londoners it’s even a point of pride: minding your own business is a form of ‘negative politeness’, after all.
But could our vow of heads-down, phones-out, earbuds-in commuting silence be doing us harm? According to the latest Time Out City Life Index survey, one in three Londoners has felt lonely in the last 24 hours – and that lonely third is also more likely to have felt stressed, depressed and anxious. So maybe the time is right for TubeChat: a new short-range messaging app that lets you talk to your fellow commuters without actually, y’know, talking to them.
Developed by Clerkenwell start-up HelloHub, TubeChat uses Bluetooth to connect devices underground without mobile signal or wi-fi, with a maximum range of about 200 metres. It aims to capitalise on the fact that most of us spend our commutes mindlessly looking at our phones, by starting online chats between nearby commuters. And who knows? Some of those chats might even end up becoming IRL conversations.
The app is decentralised – TubeChat doesn’t gather data on users’ profiles or conversations – and users can change their username at will, to stay completely incognito, and leave conversations whenever they want. With any luck, that should stop it becoming populated exclusively by creeps and wannabe pick-up artists. We live in hope – although users of the app’s first pre-programmed icebreaker, ‘What is your favourite emoji?’, should probably be prepared for aubergines.
TubeChat is available for iOS now, with an Android version due to follow next year. If it catches on, it could be a solid idea to combat the loneliness of London life. Let’s just hope it goes down better than the widely mocked Tube Chat badges of 2016.