Why you should care

By helping to keep your friends safe you can also earn rewards. 

You’re at the bar with your friends, dancing, drinking and letting loose on a Friday night. All of a sudden, you realize you can’t find your friend. You stand on your tiptoes to see over the crowd, elbow your way through people and check the bathroom, but she’s nowhere to be found. You saw her dancing with a random guy an hour earlier … did she go home with him? How drunk was she?

This is the type of panicky problem a social media app called bthere is trying to solve. Launched in 2017, Austin-based bthere was created by entrepreneur Ben Johanson in an attempt to reduce sexual violence on college campuses. The free location-sharing and messaging app incentivizes users to stay close to friends when they’re out at night by giving them points — effectively gamifying safety.

Here’s how it works. Users form permanent or temporary friend circles. From within these circles you can share your location, message friends and see a map of everyone’s location at once. You can also “Drop a Piñata” to your circle that lets your friends know the time, place — and even theme — of your next party. You earn extra points when your circle spends time together within a piñata radius. The points are converted into bthere coins (1 hour = 1 coin), which can be redeemed for discounts on things like concert tickets, local store purchases, as well as free stuff.

Launched at the University of Texas two years ago, bthere has since expanded to Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas Tech, USC and Oklahoma University with more colleges to come this year.

The app can also keep tabs on friends who’ve had too much to drink, or even help them find you in a crowd.

For Johanson, creating bthere was personal. After his college friend was sexually assaulted, he was shocked to learn the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses. Among U.S. undergraduate students, 23.1 percent of women and 5.4 percent of men experience some form of sexual assault or rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). But that’s based on the incidents that are known — many cases of sexual assault go unreported.

Johanson, who left a law career to start bthere, began reading and talking to educators in the field. “I learned that bystander intervention is one of the most effective ways to prevent sexual assault,” he says. “But most friends don’t feel like they have the power or permission to step in for one another.”

In addition to preventing sexual assault, the app can also keep tabs on friends who’ve had too much to drink, or even help them find you in a crowd. Within your circle of friends, you can press the “Come Get Me” button and the app will alert your friends to your location. “Two weeks ago, I got separated from my friends, and if we’re being honest, was a little too intoxicated to find them,” one user says. After pressing “Come Get Me” in our circle, “two of them were there in five minutes. I’ve never been so thankful.”

What sets bthere apart from location sharing on iMessage or Google Maps is the rewards system. Users are incentivized by points, earned by staying physically close to one another.

The app’s brightly colored interface — with pinks, purples and greens — might scream millennial, but Johanson chose the design firm Handsome for a more specific reason: The company focuses on human-centered design work and performs testing and research with real users as they develop projects. Before beginning the bthere project, Handsome studied campus safety and conducted dorm room visits and student interviews.

All of the design decisions, such as accessibility, user friendliness and look, “are intentional based on user research and testing,” says Matt DeMartino, head of marketing and brand at Handsome. The end result: a trust-building social media and “digital platform that incentivizes spending real time with one another,” he says.

bthere isn’t the only app that uses geolocation as a safety tool. BSafe, an app for kids and parents, uses live streaming video and GPS tracking to ensure kids get home safely. And Circle of 6, also designed to prevent sexual violence on campus, shares a user’s location with up to six contacts. bthere allows you to add an unlimited number of friends to your circle.

With any app designed to protect personal safety, it’s only as effective as the user. If your friend becomes too drunk to press “Come Get Me,” the onus is on the rest of the circle to check in. But the upside here is that with the app, connected friends have the ability to do that.

In April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, bthere partnered with It’s On Us, a movement started by Barack Obama and the White House Council on Women and Girls to combat sexual assault on campuses. Each time someone downloads the app, $2 is donated to It’s On Us (when using the referral code “IOU”).

As bthere is adopted by more students and colleges around the country, it could become one of the first social media platforms that does more good than harm.

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