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Apple’s policing of the App Store may sometimes be controversial, especially insofar as the iPhone maker is often required to sanction apps to comply with laws in other countries that many justifiably find objectionable. Once in a while, however, the company is faced with the need to remove something that’s of genuine concern, as is the case with its latest crackdown on an app that was clearly intended to promote secret parties in flagrant violation of pandemic-related health guidelines and regulations.
For much of this past year, public health officials around the world have been recommending that people practice social distancing and stay at home as much as possible, and in some jurisdictions that’s actually become the law. However, it turns out that there’s been an app lurking in the App Store for some time now that was expressly created to flout these rules.
The app and service, “Vybe Together” was designed to offer a platform where users could organize underground parties and find others who were hosting their own, and in case there was any doubt about the intention of the app, its tagline was “Get your rebel on. Get your party on.”
To protect the clandestine nature of the events being hosted through Vybe Together, organizers were required to pre-approve everyone who wanted to attend, with the actual location of the party being revealed only to those who were approved, and only two hours before the event.
Of course most of these gatherings would be illegal under the pandemic restrictions in most U.S. states, so everything was handled in an extremely secretive and anonymous way. Users wanting to gain access to the service had to provide their Instagram handle and upload pictures of them actively partying to prove that they were legitimate “rebels” against the COVID-19 lockdowns, rather than folks who might publicize the events to the wrong people.
According to The Verge, which first noted the removal of the app and proceeded to dig a bit deeper, one of the app’s co-founders revealed that the app, which had been promoted on TikTok and a dedicated website had accumulated a “few thousand users” and had in fact began building a waiting list of applicants before Apple caught wind of it and pulled it from the App Store.
Vybe Together originally had a fairly low profile, which might explain how it escaped Apple’s notice and managed to make it through the App Store review process in the first place — it’s unclear when the app was first published on the App Store, although The Verge notes that it was mentioned in at least one EventBrite invitation as far back as September.
However, it gained mainstream exposure after New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz called it out to their 200K+ followers, describing the developers as “terrible people” who built an app for “promoting COVID-unsafe large, indoor house parties.”
On a since-removed FAQ page, Vybe Together tried to downplay the nature of its app by insisting that it was designed to promote “small gatherings” rather than “big parties” while acknowledging the dangers of COVID-19 as “a major health problem.”
In a statement made to The Verge, a spokesperson for Vybe Together claimed that they “never hosted any large parties” and insisted that an “over-the-top marketing video” gave an impression about its intentions that the company never truly intended. However, it didn’t seem that Vybe Together had any actual in-app restrictions that would have limited the sizes of gatherings hosted through the app.
In the very least, Vybe Together seems like an irresponsible idea, since even small gatherings from members of different households can still spread COVID-19, so the size of the gatherings isn’t so much the issue, and of course if small gatherings were truly the objective, it seems unlikely that the app would have needed to incorporate so much secrecy, although of course that may have simply been part of the marketing draw. It’s unclear how the app’s developers actually intended to monetize the platform, however.
As The Verge notes, there’s no information at this point as to how much the app may have contributed to people holding unsafe events. While it promoted “gatherings every weekend,” including an upcoming New Year’s Eve party, that’s likely just marketing spin, and the Vybe Together app only had 25 ratings before it was removed from the App Store, with under 1,000 followers on its Instagram page, which was emptied of all of its previous posts and replaced with a single entry noting that it had been “Blown out of proportion by media,” before being banned entirely by Instagram.
While it’s possible — perhaps even understandable — that not everybody who downloaded the app and signed up also followed the company on social media, these numbers still seem quite a bit lower than the “few thousand users” and “few thousand additional applicants” that the app’s co-founders were touting.