Pros and Cons of the Companion App, Which Promises You’ll “Never Walk Home Alone”

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Just this week, I heard about the Companion app from many different folks on social media. Companion is this really neat app designed by five students from the University of Michigan that allows people walking home alone to request a digital buddy (or Companion!) to track their location. Among its several features are the ability to request specific friends and family members to track your little dot on a map, a check-in from the app if you don’t make it to your destination on time, your headphones are ripped out or if you start running, and the ability to report neighborhoods that make you feel nervous. There’s a two-tap call 911 button (two taps just to make sure you meant to press it), and if you’re on a college campus, it also alerts campus security for an ultra quick response. It even has a personal alarm that starts making loud noises to draw other people’s attention to you.

Naturally, there are elements of this that I love. And also ones that make me raise one or both eyebrows.


Things I Love About Companion

It’s a practical tool that fills a specific need, and it does it better than any app I’ve seen yet. It’s attractive, smooth and functions well. It’s faster than calling or texting, and it lets people make decisions about their safety before something happens, when they’re clear headed (like notifying my fiancée if I begin to run on my walk home). If something happens, the barriers to asking for help are really low and sometimes automatic.

They’re reaching out to campuses, and campuses need more and better tools. Perhaps providing campuses with slick, easy-to-use tools will help out the overworked safety departments. And reaching out to colleges and universities will at least start much needed conversations internally about campus safety.

It allows communities to take care of each other. I’m all for anything that promotes community and community safety — sometimes calling the police isn’t actually the best option, calling a friend with a car is. And only you and your community can know that. This app is one more touch point for you and your community.

You don’t need to be en route to use the 911 and Nervous functions. Which means you can summon 911 to a frat party if you need to. You can summon 911 to your apartment if someone is trying to force their way in, and with less effort and thought than actually dialing.


Things I’m A Little Iffy On

There are only two gender options. Gender is a damn universe, and I feel like anyone who’s on the internet even a little bit should know this, no matter how insular their community is. I’m presuming the app needs to know your gender at all to give campus responders an idea of what you look like, but what if “female” isn’t the best descriptor? What if squarely female but dressed in men’s clothing is a better one? Or non-binary and often dressed in dresses? And if the app needs to know your gender not for safety, but for statistics, then they’re getting bad numbers — people must select one, so they’ll select something they aren’t just to use the app. Update: The Companion creators assure me that this is on their radar!

This seems to be created by men. I’ve emailed the team to try to get more information as to their makeup and motiviations and, as of writing this, haven’t received a response (which is my bad, probably, as I emailed them REALLY REALLY CLOSE to my Queer Your Tech deadline). But I did a little digging and every individual I’ve found associated with this app appears to be male. It won a business contest at U of M and the only people speaking on behalf of it seem to be male. This is less to do with the app’s actual purpose and more to do with my feelings on startup teams that either exclude women entirely, or don’t appear to have women on the team because they’re not the ones out in the world doing the talking. Both of these things are not great! If your team is diverse, make sure to showcase it because girls need to see it to be it. To get specific to Companion, this app seems to be marketed more heavily toward women (because of course we have to be worried for our safety 100% of the time, see two points down). I’m wary of any product that is created by men and marketed to women specifically. I feel like that’s how we got Bic for Her.

Update: I received an email from Companion clarifying that two of the original five creators are women! It was so nice to hear from you, Katie and Lexie! I’m looking forward to hearing a lot of your fine words in the media surrounding Companion!

The “I’m Nervous” feature might result in some racist and classist behavior. So this is one of those things that’s not really on Companion, but does anyone else feel like people are just going to report neighborhoods where people of color live as shady? It’d be one thing if that data had no ramifications, but when campuses pair up with Companion, they increase patrolling in areas that users report. So this feature could be directly responsible for increasing campus police and police presence in neighborhoods where populations have the most tension with law enforcement, and it could be happening for no good reason at all.

It’s still just a bandaid on rape culture, and people aren’t talking about it that way. Okay, so one of the people who shared this in my circle of friends pointed out how fucked it was that she has to fear for her safety all the time. But everyone else posted things like, “Ladies! Be safe out there!” Aw hell no. This will not be one more thing — she wasn’t using Companion? Well, she must be stupid and therefore deserves assault. Nope. Nope nope nope. Additionally, unfortunately most of the situations in which one is statistically likely to be assaulted are ones where they didn’t feel nervous or like they needed to alert friends — because they’re being assaulted by someone they know and may trust. The real solution to assault, rape and any other crimes that someone might try to commit while you’re walking home alone at night or at any other time is to simply not commit them. Only when people stop doing those things will everyone be safe.

Surveillance is not the answer to safety. I’m not a fan of the idea that everyone knowing everything about me, including my location, is the way to safety. I’m not an extremely private person, but I’ve grown to enjoy walking through my city when no one knows where I am. I like being alone. I like it a lot. And giving up privacy for safety isn’t something I’m super willing to do, especially not when I can just call for help if I need it. But that’s not necessarily the case for you or for others!


So My Overall Opinion?

Gosh y’all, I don’t know. I’m glad it exists, for sure, if it even helps one person out. It seems like a fairly comprehensive solution to one specific concern. But I think there are serious flaws with an app like Companion, although some of them aren’t even Companion’s fault, and the specific problem of walking home alone that Companion deals with is only one aspect of how rape culture affects our lives. Am I being too critical? Ultimately, I won’t be keeping this on my phone. But I’d really love to know what you think. You can download it for free on iOS and Android.


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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 529 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. I had the same concern about the “I’m Nervous” feature. I know of waaaay too many people who would perpetuate racism with that.
    I’m glad you mentioned that the app appears to be created by men only. Is it really that hard to involve women? We’re roughly half of the population…and know more about this topic.

    • I second both these comments.

      I also agree with the article that many of the cons are really just society’s issues coming through in this app: racisim, the patriarchy etc
      I’m glad we can talk about it without the “why can’t you just be glad it exists? no – you’re making it racist” comments.

      Good article :)

  2. I am from Hong Kong. I downloaded the app alright, filled in my number, got the activation code sent to my number, etc. etc. However, when I tried it out with a friend, the app could only dial, including area code, 10 digits. We have 11 digits. I was wondering why they could do with the registration but not when the app is actually used.

  3. I feel like I really like the idea of this app, and I’ve read a lot of reviews, but I admit I haven’t used it. As a smallish human who feels a little freaked out when walking alone at night (mediumish college town — way too many random assaults in the past few years), I don’t really mind the surveillance aspect since sometimes it’s less safe to talk to someone on the phone and not be paying attention, so I’m curious to try it out. I could see this leading to my mom getting way too freaked out about me starting to jog home and forgetting to hit the I AM ALIVE AND FINE button, though…

  4. Thanks for the review Ali! I’ve had weird feelings about this (particularly the “nervous” feature…screams racism) and probably won’t download it, but i guess for those who need it, i’m glad it exists.

  5. I’m currently a student at the University of Michigan and I think this app is really incredible. There are times when I’ve been tempted to use the “I’m nervous” feature but it has never had anything to do with race or class. In all honesty, the times I am the most nervous is when I’m walking past a group of fraternity brothers or their houses, any larger groups of men really, and I know that many of my friends do the same. Ann Arbor is a relatively safe neighborhood, but as a woman- especially as a queer woman- drunk college boys are the real reason I use companion. Is this app going to change the way rape on college campuses is addressed? Probably not. But I do have a lot of friends who wish that Companion had been around before they found themselves in a situation where they really needed it.

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