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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Randonauting Promised Adventure. It Led to Dumpsters

There is a garbage truck parked on top of the meaning of life. I have come to a set of coordinates randomly generated by the app Randonautica, a self-professed “tool created to enhance the human experience” by allowing you to set an “intention” before leading you to a supposedly relevant destination. Intentions can be anything from “a dog” to “the divine.” Results range from meaningful graffiti to mysterious doorways to, yes, literal dogs. My intention was “meaning,” and as the garbage truck flashes its lights and pulls away, I am excited to see that something is glimmering on the ground. It’s small and it’s shiny and it’s making me quicken my pace. It’s the discarded wrappings of a microwavable tuna lunch.

You likely first heard of Randounatica in July 2020, when it was labeled “the app of the summer” by The Atlantic after global lockdowns prompted widespread interest in the six-month-old tool—oh, and after a group of teenage users stumbled upon a beached suitcase that contained human remains. The teens uploaded their findings to TikTok, igniting a frenzy and a fad. Videos tagged #Randonautica have to date accumulated 1 billion views on the site.

The most popular of these videos—with 4.3 million likes—sees a narrator panic that a man standing behind her vehicle somehow isn’t showing up on her car’s rear camera: “You guys! He’s not there! … What the fuck!” On Reddit, “randonauts” share photos of their journeys on a 149,000 subscriber sub. There’s the person who found the end of a rainbow, the friends who discovered gold coins scattered on the ground, the randonaut who set their intention as “something unexplainable” and came across a lone armchair in the middle of a field. Whether spooky or serene, the most popular randonauting stories make the phenomenon seem phenomenal, promising an experience that is far more exciting than a stinky discarded tub of tuna.

Randonauting has a hype problem, coupled with a misinformation problem, topped with an expectations-versus-reality problem—and it’s leaving a lot of people disappointed and bemused. Four months ago, a randonaut Redditor created a post entitled, “So Far, Nothing …” describing the “20+” times they’d used the Randonautica app.

“So far I have not experienced that WOW factor so many have. No synchronicities, owls, white rabbits, wall talk, personally meaningful events,” they wrote (“talking walls” are murals, signs, or bits of graffiti at a destination). The Redditor’s first intent was their favorite color, magenta—they arrived at a field “with nothing even remotely resembling magenta” around. Next, they were led to private property, to the middle of a pond, and to a sand pit.

The last time the Redditor tried the app, their intent was “Randonautica” itself—they arrived at a boarded-up shack with five cardboard recycling dumpsters in front. There was, they wrote, “Nothing I could perceive as meaningful anywhere near it,” ending their rant, “SERIOUSLY?”

I encounter the same problem when I fire up the app in search of meaning. I may have briefly tried to retcon an explanation (the truck left behind tuna as it drove away … Douglas Adams wrote “so long, and thanks for all the fish” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which also famously claimed the meaning of life was 42), but ultimately I closed the app disappointed. What is the reality of randonauting, and how does social media obscure it? Is that “WOW factor” actually the point, or is there more to the app than its most extreme stories? Is it possible to find something in nothing at all?

Darius Nitisor, a 21-year-old Amazon worker from London, has used Randonautica “probably a couple of hundred times” since he saw the suitcase story on TikTok and downloaded the app. On his first adventure, Nitisor set his intention as “something calming.” He was led to a park 45 minutes from his house and on the way back bumped into an old friend. Many randonauts claim to have experienced the “long-lost friend phenomenon,” whereby someone they hadn’t seen for a while is standing at the exact location generated by the app.

But the vast majority of Nitisor’s randonauting trips have been disappointing, leading to nothing connected to his intent. “I kept hearing all these stories, but I couldn’t really find anything obvious,” he says. “Nine out of 10 times, nothing obvious happens.” Twice, he set his intent to “football” and was brought to a pitch and a training ground, but Nitisor wonders whether it was just a coincidence, especially with all the other duds. He gradually stopped using the app.

“There is no way to find nothing; there is something in everything,” says Randonautica cofounder Auburn Salcedo. Salcedo and cofounder Joshua Lengfelder claim that the app uses “mind-matter-interaction” technology, meaning that when you choose your intent, you’re supposedly influencing the quantum random number generator with your thoughts. If this all sounds a little woo-woo—it is. Randonautica’s tenets are spectacularly unproven, if well-intended. For Salcedo, the overall goal of the app is simple: “One of the main things we want is to add novelty to people’s life through randomness.”

Exploring the world around you, Salcedo says, can “take you out of your mundane lifestyle” and help you feel happier. “Doing something truly random can open your mind. It gives you this kind of endorphin release feeling,” she says. But Randounatica, it turns out, has a large-scale fake news problem, ignited by the TikTok suitcase video, which Salcedo says “changed the sentiment” of randonauting.

“We started seeing a lot of what I would consider clout chasers,” she says. Lengfelder argues that TikTokers use keywords favored by the algorithm to generate clicks, reeling off examples: “warning, scary, creepy, terrifying Randonautica adventure.” Plus, much of this content is faked. The second most popular TikTok video tagged #Randonautica is a jump scare clip in a “shady park in the middle of nowhere.” The video ends with a creepy figure running directly toward the camera.

“We saw firsthand what it’s like when people take your brand and vision and use it specifically to garner likes and views,” Salcedo says. Even without fakery, the most compelling stories are naturally the ones that go viral. But Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, notes that algorithms that value popularity “amplify distorted perspectives so that something that is atypical appears to be normal and vice versa.”

When Menczer ran an experiment with Fakey, a news literacy app developed in his lab, he found that when people saw an article with low credibility had lots of likes and shares, they were more likely to like and share it themselves and less likely to flag it as fake. Menczer says there is a “mutually reinforcing loop between algorithmic and human bias”—the more we share something, the more the algorithm amplifies it, the more people see it’s popular, the more they want to share it. The result, of course, is that we’re more vulnerable to misinformation. Or—in Menczer’s words—“junk goes viral.”

To combat this, Randonautica now has its own inbuilt social network, Discover. Here, users can verify their trips by sharing the exact location where they found something unusual—others can check to see everything is as they claimed. The app’s founders have also started doing YouTube livestreams, taking suggestions of intentions from users in the chat to show in real time that randonauting isn’t fake.

But even without clout-chasing TikTokers, Randonautica promised something incredible. Salcedo lights up when she talks about a livestream she did in August during which people in the chat were talking about Christmas and the app led her to a house “that was empty except for a single string of Christmas lights you could see through the window.” (Never mind, of course, that the intent was set to “Heaven on Earth.”) It’s well established that the phenomenon of pareidolia means humans can’t help but seek patterns and impose meaning on the world around us (think: seeing Jesus in your toast). But as there’s no evidence that humans can actually influence a random coordinate generator with their intentions, a proportion of Randonautica users will continue to be disappointed.

For Salcedo, mindset matters: “The individual user’s mindset and how out of the box they can think will turn a situation from ‘I found nothing’ into a profound and meaningful experience.” On Randonautica’s in-built social media app, it’s crystal clear how people turn nothing into something. One user set an intention as “Squid Game” and on their way back were stopped at a red light—“super accurate,” they wrote, likely because the game Red Light, Green Light was a plot point in the show.

Nitisor had a few strange experiences around the time he was using the app—for a week, he noticed an abundance of gray cars outside his house, and once he was spooked when ambulances seemingly started blaring whenever he reached a particular point on the pavement—but neither of these was related to his intentions or occurred at the points the app picked out. (And yes, that spot on the pavement was incredibly near a hospital.) All of which has led Nitisor to an Occam’s razor-like explanation for most of the Randonautica phenomena he’s experienced: “You see stuff that you wouldn’t usually look for.”

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