FlexTime wants to help people seem cooler than they are by tricking others into believing they’re friends with celebrities like Post Malone and Billie Eilish.
The app allows users to simulate a FaceTime call by using clips from various live streams and Instagram stories posted over the last year. The clips are saved using a basic screen recorder, and then played back as a standard FaceTime call that users can interact with to make their own video.
The idea began as a possible stunt for Brooklyn-based creative agency MSCHF. It quickly picked up speed, however, when the team started realizing how important FaceTime was to a generation of kids, strategist Daniel Greenberg tells The Verge.
“Millennials are all about texting,” Greenberg says of the now-aging generation being supplanted by current teenagers. “Everyone my age and younger is always FaceTiming. I have gone to many a bar in Brooklyn and pretended that I was talking to Post Malone and so people have believed it.”
FlexTime is rooted in what Mel Magazine defined as “spontaneous FaceTime.” The new trend refers to people mostly under the age of 25 who would rather just call a friend on FaceTime to talk or ask a question instead of texting. (Comparatively, I am 27 years old, and taught my mother to text so I could avoid any kind of vocal communication.)
The popularity of video calls is representative of a generational divide, but it’s also heavily influenced by how Gen Z musicians, influencers, and celebrities treat apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Artists like Post Malone or the late Lil Peep would often start a random Instagram live stream multiple times a week to have conversations with fans, instead of publishing a carefully curated post or photo caption. The former is more raw and real, the latter more superficial and traditional.
Teenagers have become used to talking with their friends face-to-face (via a rectangular phone), and now experiencing their favorite influencers the same way. FlexTime leans into that desire by allowing people to create the illusion for friends and strangers that they’re a part of this world and engaging with their favorite artists and celebrities similarly.
It’s a two-way street, according to Greenberg. People who download the app want to be able to trick their friends or create funny videos, but influencers are also seeing the benefit. Five Instagram and YouTube influencers — KushPapi, Milan Mirabella, Tydus Talbott, Bryce Hall, and Joey Birlem — are working with FlexTime to create individual landing pages where fans can use exclusive simulated FaceTime conversations.
All five influencers have more than 10 million followers and subscribers combined across various platforms. Their careers are dependent on an active and engaged fan base, and this is one way to maintain an active parasocial relationship, in which fans feel a non-reciprocated level of intimacy with a creator or celebrity. Greenberg told The Verge that “some celebrities and influencers saw immense value in this feature,” adding that their team is working with the aforementioned creators to “test it out next week to see how it goes.”
FlexTime is designed to be used for goofy fun, but in the wake of doctored videos being used for malicious purposes, it raises important questions about how and to what end video footage can and should be used. Greenberg said the team thought about how the tool could be used by bad actors during the year-long development cycle. He told The Verge that their team “scouted the audio carefully” to make sure that it couldn’t harm a celebrity or influencer’s reputation if, say, someone wanted to maliciously edit together a misleading quote using real-life audio.
“Let’s say that we had a video of a celebrity not saying anything, but just nodding their head in agreement,” Greenberg said. “In that case, someone could make a video saying something incredibly racist and having the celebrity nod to imply they agree. We thought of that, and made sure none of the videos fell into that category. We’ve thought of every way this could go wrong and acted against it.” It’s likely, however, that if the app gains popularity, some users will indeed find ways to abuse the system; FlexTime’s development team can’t have foreseen everything.
FlexTime is available now. A browser version exists for anyone to use, but people can’t directly share their recordings. A mobile version also exists via a third-party app called Monkey. It allows people to share their recordings directly to Instagram or Twitter. There are about 25 celebrities to choose from in the browser version, and close to 40 in the mobile app. Greenberg is hopeful more celebrities and influencers will be added soon.