The most popular apps suck us into the technological equivalent of couch lock, but it’s easy to imagine how things might have gone differently. Rather than idly scrolling and mindlessly issuing likes into the void, social media could — and, at its best, does — empower us to connect beyond its virtual confines.
It’s not easy to peel people away from entrenched do-it-all apps made by the world’s biggest companies, but that hasn’t discouraged the founders of Recs from trying. Created by data scientist Jesse Berns and consumer app developer Sean Conrad, Recs is the spiritual successor to another app the pair launched in 2021 called Go Disco, which curated local events based on a user’s interests.
Recs is very similar in spirit, with the stated goal of getting people “off the phone and hanging out with each other,” but the app moves away from the fleeting nature of events and toward static hotspots like favorite restaurants and music venues.
“People’s lives are based around physical spaces, right? And events are sort of ephemera,” Berns told TechCrunch. “[It’s] one of the things we learned with Go Disco. The fact that events are ephemeral meant that it was really hard to build a product that got people offline consistently… whereas places are really intimate and special — and you go to them all the time.”
In their new project, Conrad and Berns have traded hats, with Berns now taking the CEO role while Conrad handles the product and tech side of things. Recs is available now in the App Store and open to everyone, though the app’s utility in a given city will depend on how many people happen to be using it.
Recs operates under the assumption that the best recommendations originate with the people we know and trust. The app aims to steer users toward everything from coffee shops and Thai places to gyms and art museums based on what their friends have already tried and liked. And instead of encouraging users to review everything they do, the good and the bad, Recs drops the negative half of the equation.
“There’s no negativity, you either recommend somewhere or you don’t — there’s no one to five stars, there’s no ‘this place sucks,’ there’s no trolling,” Berns said. “There’s no anonymity: If you go on Recs and you want to be anonymous, then you’ll have no friends because Recs is only for you and your friends and your second degree connections to your friends of friends. There’s no influencer culture on Recs at all.”
It’s a simple solution to a problem so ubiquitous and mundane we don’t even really think about it: Do you really want to wade through 30 reviews by disgruntled Yelp warriors when picking a pupusa place for date night, or would you rather get one solid recommendation from a trusted friend? (As someone who goes way too deep into every deeply cursed corner of reviews internet, I am emphatically asking to be delivered from the former.)
Recommendations for a great place to eat or an offbeat bookstore are their own kind of social currency — and one that isn’t well captured by any apps at the moment. To share this kind of information, friends might share a Note or even a physical list. From pins in Google Maps to Pinterest to Instagram bookmarks, tons of products can imperfectly capture bits of this information, but there’s no one solution that people seem to go to that is purpose-built.
“Could we build a product that allows you to exchange your favorite places with your friends, get your friends’ favorite places, and share yours, too?” Berns said. “That was sort of the start of Recs.”
“I think that there are so many spaces that we try and go to either aspirationally or that we actually go to with close friends each day, or each week, or each month… And there’s a huge opportunity in building a product that just manages places. It’s just a bank, or a wallet or an exchange for your places.”
Social tendencies notwithstanding, the duo behind Recs prefers to frame their app as a utility rather than a social network, and that comes across in the interface. Recs basically looks like Google Maps with a light social layer and a hot pink, dinosaur-laden interface. The familiar design and lack of unnecessary complexity is a perk, making the process of hopping in and gleaning a bit of useful intel very quick. In an unfamiliar part of town? Pull up the map, zoom into your location and look for the biggest stars, which are color-coded by type (bars, restaurants, bookstores, etc).
The most popular spots — the ones with the most recommendations from the app’s users — have the biggest stars. It’s how Google’s own map-based reviews should work, but given that product’s size and incentives that was never really in the cards. Not coincidentally, Recs allows Google Maps users to import their lists of saved places over in a few clicks, but note that this trick only works for lists like your “favorites” and custom lists, not for the default starred places option.
“Utilities are like new capabilities, and this can come from either something like Google Maps, or Waze — like directions are now a new capability my brain doesn’t need to solve anymore,” Conrad said. “And what we would say is collecting or creating gravity around recording the places you want to go or the places you’ve been and love is something that we are providing as well.
“This is one of the two key problems that we’re trying to solve… our favorite places and the places we want to go are stored all over the place. You know, it’s [in] Maps, and in our head, and our friends’ heads. And it’s also very high pressure to see our friends more now than ever.”
I don’t have friends who use the app yet, but so far it’s still useful even without recommendations directly from people you know. If you do manage to get your social circle to install one more app, you’ll be able to see places your friends want to try, a feature that provides an easy springboard for hanging out IRL.
I live in Portland, where Recs launched in testing a little earlier this year (our city did have a bit of a head start) but Recs’ recs already look quite solid. I downloaded the app the week that my part of town was buzzing about a new Vietnamese brunch place and lo and behold, that restaurant showed up highlighted in Recs.
The community is still very small, but the vibes right now are sort of like that golden era when Foursquare was actually useful and you could generally trust the advice you’d find there. I’m a bit of a food person and looking across my own city, the big stars are reliably some of our city’s best restaurants and hidden gems, not just the obvious places that might show up on a touristy best of list.
It’s actually kind of shocking that something like Recs could be useful in its early days with so few users, but the signal to noise ratio does seem very healthy right now — a very refreshing change of pace and a less is more lesson well-learned.