Blast Theory’s Karen: Does This Life Coach App Get Too Personal?

The app psychologically profiles users as they interact with a fictitious life coach.

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Meet Karen, your life coach for the next week. She wants to help you become a better person in all facets of life. Karen is friendly and polite, but perhaps a bit too forthcoming with personal information. Still, her goal is admirable, and things begin simply enough, with Karen running through a series of seemingly innocent personal questions.

Quickly, though, you’ll discover Karen isn’t as put together as she seems; in fact, you’re probably far more stable than she is. And yet, we can’t help but be drawn to her, and feel a bit sad when the experience ends.

Karen isn’t a real life coach. She isn’t even real, but she can teach us real things about our use of technology, and how quickly we share personal information when asked. Created by British performance and interactive arts company, Blast Theory, in partnership with National Theatre Wales, Karen is more than an app, it’s an experience used to challenge participants’ thinking about the ways they share their information.

So far, the response to Karen has overwhelmed its developers. Blast Theory tells SocialTimes:

In its first week, almost 5,000 people downloaded Karen, a figure that when compared to audience numbers for traditional arts events, highlights the huge audience reach potential of digital technologies. Though not necessarily a large figure when compared to average downloads of game apps, this exceeded our expectations for the first week of downloads for an artistic app, especially considering there is not an “Arts” category in the App store.

I spent 10 days with Karen, completing one or two time-specific sessions per day, which are presented to users slowly (sometimes too slowly), leaving you wanting more and thinking about the app, and this fictitious woman, even when she’s not around (or better yet, talking about her with friends also on the ride).

Karen’s life is out of sorts; she just left a damaging relationship and her disregard for personal boundaries is quite concerning. She also seems to know you, and the way you think, too well, thanks to Dr. Kelly Page, an expert in the ways psychologists measure personalities, who worked with Blast Theory to create the experience.

While Karen was created to make us think about our oversharing of personal information, it works best if you do just that—if you let your imagination go, and pretend it’s real. So, I did just that. I knew Karen was an actress (played by Claire Cage of Coronation Street), and yet, I legitimately started to care and worry about her well-being. Each time I interacted with the app, the choices and responses I made to Karen’s questions and prompts were logged, analyzed by the app, and used to tailor the experience going forward.

At one point, Karen dives into a series of questions of a sexual nature. I was taken aback and left legitimately uncomfortable, but I had to answer, even if I lied, in order to move forward. But lying would skew everything I had experienced up to that point, not to mention the data being collected along the way. So should you lie? Or do you answer these highly personal questions, knowing your answers are being logged by the app?

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When the experience is over, and your final session logged, you’re given the option of spending $3.99 on a data report, containing a personality profile the app has compiled using your responses. The report analyzes your neuroticism, your willingness to invade another person’s privacy and more, anonymously comparing your answers and stats with the answers other users have provided, and detailing how Karen changed in response to certain triggers. If anything, this was the most disappointing portion of the app. What the data report covers, it covers in great detail, but it seems like a few key areas of the experience were left out. Then again, I’m no psychologist.

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