Meet Plague: An app plumbing the depths of viral networking

We use the term viral to describe the way information spreads across the internet, but a new social communications app has taken that concept to its extreme. Instead of using the word “virus” as a metaphor, an app called Plague developed in Lithuania is making the virus the model for how it spreads content from device to device.

Plague shouldn’t be confused with Plague Inc., the extremely twisted but highly addictive mobile game, but they share a similar goal: to engineer a virus that will infect the world. In Plague Inc. you’re stuck within the in-game world, though, while Plague spreads from phone to phone across the physical globe.

Plague screenshot sleep

Every disease is a simple bit of content, whether text, a link, a photo or a video. When you unleash it, it immediately seeks out the nearest four smartphones with the Plague app installed, infecting them with your content. When those four users next log in they will have the choice of spreading the infection by scrolling the screen up – infecting another four nearby users – or inoculating themselves against it by thumbing the screen downwards, thus abating the spread of the virus. You can also choose to comment on any given post.

It’s a simple as that. While every content post identifies its patient zero and any additional commenters by chosen screen name and starting location, users otherwise remain anonymous. There is no way to follow or message specific users. Your only means of interaction is to deal with the infections as they come.

Plague Screenshot

And that’s the beauty of the app, its co-creator Ilya Zudin told me in a Skype interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, where his company Deep Sea Marketing makes its home. While other social networking apps let individual users accrue large followings and influence – thus increasing the chances any bit of their content will go viral — in Plague everyone starts and remains on the same footing, Zudin said. Everyone has four opportunities to spread any given infection – no more, no less – and anything posted on Plague has the same chance of either spreading around the globe or going no further than its creator’s smartphone.

Deep Sea only launched its Android and iOS apps last week, and it hasn’t promoted those apps it all, though it has the means to do so. Deep Sea has already produced a moderately successful photo-sharing app called We Heart Pics. When I unleashed my first infection last week, Plague only had a few hundred users, so my post jumped the Atlantic to somewhere in the Baltic states where the closest active users happened to be located.

An infection map of a Plague post

An infection map of a Plague post

Right now the app depends on GPS location to find its possible infection vectors, but Zudin said his team is preparing for a day when the app could reach a level of penetration where infections can be spread by much closer contact. An update to Plague will allow the app to communicate off-the-grid, establishing direct peer-to-peer connections via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with no internet connection or server acting as intermediary, Zudin said. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same means off-grid messaging app FireChat uses to build its ad-hoc mesh networks, allowing nearby users to keep communicating when the internet goes down.

The update is called Dark Mode, and it’s intended to sounds just as sinister as Plague itself. Zudin acknowledged that Deep Sea is being tongue and cheek with its naming scheme, but he also admitted he is a bit wary about unleashing a truly off-grid anonymous content propagation tool on the world. If Plague devices are communicating anonymously below Deep Sea’s radar, truly offensive and illegal content could spread without any check or accountability.

“We have to be able to remove this kind of content before it has to chance to spread,” Zudin said. “For instance, it could be used to spread child pornography.”

In such an off-grid network, there’s no easy means of blocking individual users or flagging content. As devices get close to one another they link together, share their content and then disappear without a trace, truly emulating the behavior of epidemiological pathogen. It’s a fascinating concept in networking, but also one that’s a little bit scary.