Focusmate is weird
co-working, but make it surveillance?
“Is this the answer to our Productivity Crisis?” asks Guardian writer Sam Wolfson, who has just discovered co-working. Except, it’s a new site called Focusmate, that matches you with a stranger on a video call for 25 or 50 minutes.
I stumbled upon someone called @adhd_coach_ryan on Tiktok advertising it too: “I tell all my clients about this, and it’s cool, because this one is totally free.”
But, why is it totally free, Ryan?
A brief look at their FAQ page made me scream a little. Video is mandatory, you’re not allowed to turn it off, and you are encouraged to keep your mic on, too.
Under “How is accountability enforced?” the answer reads:
If you're late or don't show, Focusmate can detect it and your timeliness score will be reduced, and your account can also be frozen. If your partner goofs off during the session, you can report it using the reporting button on the appointment card in your dashboard.
Be sure to surveil your assigned stranger for any signs of indolence and report it to The Company!
Aggregated Information (information that does not personally identify you) may be used in many ways…Aggregated Information may occasionally be shared with our advertisers and business partners.
No apps or services are truly “free” — you pay in data. It’s the currency of our times. Not being personally identified sounds okay, until you consider research that’s shown 99.98% of anonymized data can be re-identified, with aggregating making it more likely.
The fact that video is mandatory and mics are encouraged makes me skeptical, because I participate in co-working sessions every week with an online community and there are no rules like this. It’s still motivating with your video off, so what could be the purpose of mandating such a thing, besides data collection?
In her book The Smartphone Society (which I talk about constantly and recommend too much), sociologist Nicole Aschoff explains the sheer profitability of collecting and selling (or as tech companies say, “sharing”) our data — in 2018, 92 percent of Facebook’s $55.8 billion revenue came from “exploiting the data we generate 24/7 with our pocket computers.”
What’s more, that data is also used to score us:
”Companies want to know whether we can be trusted to take our meds, pay our bills, keep a job, stay healthy, buy stuff, and so on, so they use predictive modeling — utilizing thousands of individual factors or data streams — to assign us consumer scores.
Virtually every adult in America has at least one consumer score…Yet, the details of what scores are attached to whom, what institutions use these scores, and how they use them are fuzzy, to say the least, because most of these scores are secret and unregulated.”
Focusmate’s creator, Taylor Jacobsen, told the Guardian that he was inspired by things like The Body Keeps the Score, tribal psychology, and nervous system co-regulation:
“So socially and physically, we repress all of the fight/flight energy that is constantly being stimulated in our nervous system. A low attention span is basically just a symptom of stress. When we feel safe we can focus, and humans are designed to experience safety through connection with others, through the tribe.”
“The tribe”, I guess, is strangers on Zoom that you will never see again?
I agree with Jacobsen’s idea, but not his execution. Focusmate feels like a distortion of co-regulation, a cheapened hack version, sort of like how Silicon Valley has taken the benefits of psychedelics and warped them into a productivity tool.
It’s not about the connection or the meaning, it’s just about tricking your body into doing more work. Lots of companies in the health tech space have latched onto pseudocollectivist messaging to sell their services — it’s trendy right now, and it resonates with our instincts as highly social creatures.
But I think something is lost when your co-workers are always total strangers, because true accountability is something you have with people you know, not randoms on Zoom. What I love about my own co-working community is that I see the same faces when I log on, we chat about each other’s work and struggles, and this means we can encourage and celebrate each other in a genuine way.
Rules like “keep your video on” and “no talking” rub me wrong — you are allowed to “connect” but only for the sole purpose of doing work, nothing more, and you also have to endure the anxiety that your focusmate is watching and reporting you to a corporation, which seems like the opposite of Jacobsen’s feel-good “safety through connection with others” talk.
Yes, co-working works — but it’s also not just about work.