You may remember, perhaps, “Peeple,” a failed social app originally intended to be “Yelp for people,” letting you rate and rank the folks you run into in your everyday life. The creepy and borderline dystopian implications of this were apparent to literally everyone outside the company, and the announcement was met with immediate derision. Nobody wants to live in a world where basic human interactions are given scores that can be tracked, calculated, and treated as the numerical value of the person itself. That’s a solution in search of a problem.
From Peeple to the infamous “tech bros” who accidentally dreamed up public transitwhile discussing ways to make Lyft more efficient, there is a very strong narrative that the people out there creating startups and participating in the app economy are so privileged, so cut off from the real world, that they barely know what’s happening in it. Enter, last week, exhibit ten-million: Bodega, the app that seems to be expressly intended to drive the corner store into extinction.
This story has been told, retold, dissected, re-dissected, and re-re-dissected a million times over the past week, so let’s recap it only briefly: a couple of ex-Googlers have developed a “convenience store app” connected to small pantries stocked with items like Advil and toilet paper. You’d open it with the app, take what you want (of a limited selection), while the pantry’s built-in camera monitors your purchases and charges you via the app. The idea is to create something simple, easy to use, and easy to access.
The problem, of course, is that we already have something simple, easy to use, and easy to access: actual, literal, brick-and-mortar bodegas. Bodegas are cultural institutions in places like New York and Los Angeles, important parts of local infrastructure and society as thick on the ground as taxicabs. It isn’t immediately clear what Bodega (the app) has to offer that makes it a meaningful improvement over real-life corner stores. To add insult to injury, the article that stirred up all this trouble explicitly claims that the aim is to make corner stores obsolete. While the company’s cofounders Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan have denied that this was ever the intent, it quickly became the entire basis of the story. And the question still floats in the air: what problem is Bodega even trying to solve?