Karen – Life Coach Gone Wrong

Nowadays, it seems like everyone has a life coach and it’s unsurprising, therefore, that life coaches are available right at our fingertips – on the devices we carry with us everywhere. Have you ever tried one of the life coach apps on your mobile device? What did you expect? I’ll bet you expected to answer some personal questions and the app would spit out some helpful advice. That might be how the traditional life coach app works, but, if that’s what you expect when you download Karen – the virtual life coach, you’ll be in for quite a surprise. The first surprise is that Karen isn’t virtual at all. She’s a real person who greets you as soon as you begin the process. Right from the get-go, she’s excited to get to know you and help you get more out of life. She seems normal, professional, and as though she has done this before.

Completing the experience typically takes a minimum of 10 days as Karen follows up with you and you have numerous appointments to speak with her. I gave myself two weeks to complete it as I anticipated that I might not be available exactly when Karen wanted me to be.

Overall, my experience with Karen was incredibly disturbing – but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me start at the beginning. During our first session, Karen began asking me questions about my emotional state. She asked about my childhood first and then had me let her know if I ‘totally disagree’ or ‘totally agree’ with a number of statements such as “Although I’m sometimes sad, I mostly have an optimistic outlook.” She gave me a bar that moved from “totally disagree” on the far left and “totally agree” on the far right and I would slide it to the point in that range that I thought best fit how I felt. These questions seemed general and seemed typical for a professional therapist/life coach to ask me. At this point in my experience, I was enjoying talking to Karen and I looked forward to our next calls.

After about three or four days of normal sessions with Karen, Karen began to get a bit weird. Nothing too crazy, but I noticed that after Karen asked me a question, she replied to my answer with an answer about her own personal life. This is something that a normal life therapist would never do. I was genuinely a little surprised and did not really know what to do with this new information. Something that I do think is key to note though, is that after thinking about my full experience with Karen, I believe the developers may have added this into the experience to make it more personal. It makes Karen seem even more like a relatable person. As much as it may have creeped me out a bit that she was responding differently than a real professional would have, this action made her seem even more like a person than a machine. Intellectually, I knew that this app was just a program but the more she was a little weird, the more I bought into her being a real person with authentic interactions with me.  This distinguishes her from other life coach apps even more because with them, it is clearly a system that you are communicating with. It makes it much easier to give Karen even more personal information because there is an increased level of trust when seeing her as a person instead of a machine.

Then, just two days later, things officially got strange with Karen. I started to notice that Karen completely disregarded our client-professional relationship. For example, while FaceTiming with her, she took me into the bathroom with her to help her pick out outfits while she was getting ready for a date. Many of our calls had almost no questions about myself.  Many were just about Karen herself and what I thought she should do with her personal life. Somehow I was roped into this strange situation with her. I even had a call with her while she was on a date. She was smoking a cigarette during our call and clearly was intoxicated. I was genuinely uncomfortable at this point in my experience with the app. But what was even more interesting was that I found that my phone itself even began making me uncomfortable. I found myself covering the front camera while I was on my calls with Karen. It felt so real that I thought at points that she could see me. This, obviously was just me being paranoid, but the fact that the app could make me feel this way was quite impressive.

Throughout the last four to five days of using Karen, the app experience completely dropped the life coach storyline. I overheard a conversation between Karen and Dave where it becomes clear that Karen has been talking about me to Dave, and I discover that Karen is not even a licensed professional. Dave later answers a call with me where he asks if I want to go through Karen’s things with him. I agree because at this point I don’t see a reason why not. Dan eventually rats me out to Karen and I spend 2-3 calls with Karen either not talking to me or being very angry with me. During the final few calls with Karen, she tries to get back to coaching me and tries to convince me that she’s been helping me throughout this experience. These calls had a very eerie feeling to them. The very last call involves Karen walking me through her apartment which is now completely empty.  It is apparent to me that she’s moved out of the apartment. The end of the call is me looking at the empty dark streets outside of her apartment. It was extremely unsettling. I was then offered the option of purchasing a data report on my psychological profile for $3.99. I thought about purchasing the report but, I decided not to because I wanted an authentic experience. If it was me just experiencing Karen as a user not a reviewer, I would not have purchased the report.

So, at this point, you may be wondering who created Karen. Karen was created by Blast Theory, an interactive arts company whose goal is to “explore social and political questions, placing audience members at the center of their work” (Blast Theory). They worked in a partnership with the National Theatre Wales who helped produce the content of Karen. Blast Theory also partnered with Dr. Karen Page who is an expert in the cognitive and behavioral profiling of Internet users. This was not the first project Blast Theory did. Prior to the creation of Karen, Blast Theory created 66 other interactive projects. One example being Dessert Rain which was a collaboration with Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. In Dessert Rain, Blast Theory used a combination of virtual reality, installation, and performance to problematize the boundary between the real and the virtual. It is a war game where Gulf War images echo Hollywood images, and where Norman Schwarzkopf blurs into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The overall goal of Karen is to show users how their data is being collected without them even being aware of it. Many parts of our daily digital world take our data without us knowing it. She is an intelligent personal agent (IPA) branded as our caring, patient friend. This creates big data that is either used or sold for the purpose of taking advantage of consumers. The more companies know about you, the more they can predict what you will do and which consumer they want to target. Just a few examples of companies that use and take our data are Facebook, Amazon, and Google, but of course there are many, many more.

Karen works because, as you get closer to her, you begin to make decisions throughout the experience that gives Blast Theory and Karen even more information about yourself. Karen distracts you by leading you away from the more typical questions that one would expect to ask. She distracts you with her chaotic personal life. As you answer questions such as “should we look through Karen’s personal things”, you do not realize that your answer to that question gives the system even more information about your decision making and personality traits. Slowly and surely the system has a large dataset of information about who you are. The data report at the end of Karen is meant to show you how much the system has learned about you without you noticing. It shows us how easily we give our information away.

Co-founder Matt Adams

The response that the Karen app received, overwhelmed its developers. In an article posted on The Guardian, by artist co-founder Matt Adams, he wrote how their “goal for the app was 3,000 downloads and this week we passed 10,000 for iOS. Most encouragingly, 35% of those who download the app go on to complete the nine-day long experience. Of those who finish, 37% have bought the personalized data report that we offer for £2.99. It shows that there’s an appetite for artistic experiences on mobile and that users are willing to commit time to and spend money on them.”

In a blog post by Lauren Doucette on Unlocker, she states that “Whether you play Karen for fun, or really delve into the deeper issues of our tech-reliant society, or just want to see how you stack up psychologically, the app is an intriguing project that allows you to interact with your phone in a whole new way.” Other fans commented on Blast Theory’s direct page of Karen with comments like “I love this app, I’ve never seen anything like it before. When you get past the weird first couple of ‘calls’ it becomes quite enjoyable! I’m only a few days in, but from a performers perspective, it’s fascinating. Good work!” There were also some critiques on the website stating “I completed the game tonight, I have made “the mistake” to buy the data report as it points out traits of my personality based on questions that several times had just a few answers and none that I would give.”

I would have to say that after completing the storyline and researching into the makings of the app I am conflicted in how I feel. I think that the idea was innovative and different. It did a great job of creeping me out and making me a little neurotic with my phone. I do think, however, without purchasing the data report, I missed a decent portion of the point that the app was trying to make as I did not get to fully see what Karen learned from me. I think that if it was about half the price I would have bought it and maybe others would feel that way so more than 39% of the users could see their reports. I loved the interactive experience with Karen and believe that apps like this do a great job of keeping the user entertained while also teaching them something new and interesting.

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