Fn 2: What Makes the Apple Notes App Good for Apologies and Grocery Lists?

"There's certainly no aesthetic choices being made when you're doing this." — Kara Brown

What does the latest celebrity mea culpa and your weekend shopping list have in common? If your answer is the Apple Notes app, then congratulations! You're not alone.

Apple Notes has become the de facto tool of choice for social media apologies, circumventing the brevity of Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms to provide lengthy additional context in a single update. But why?

In this week's episode, we explore the reasons, motivations, and compromises behind this behavior with writer and culture expert Kara Brown and senior user experience designer Regine Gilbert. Together, we look at what the evolving use of Apple Notes means for the ways in which we interact via technology.


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Anil Dash: Hi. Welcome to Function. I'm Anil Dash. Every week on Function, we talk about the ways that technology and apps are affecting our culture and society, by talking to developers and designers about the technical choices they make that impact our culture, as well as the users of those apps and technology who have to live with the choices that are made.

This week's episode is a fun one, and it's a question that's been plaguing me for some time. It's a big question. Why do so many celebrities use that Apple Notes app whenever they need to issue a public apology? If you're anywhere on social media, you've probably seen these things. It's when a person types up their statement, takes a screenshot, and then posts the screenshot of that Notes app on Instagram, on Twitter, on Snapchat, or anywhere else that you can share a picture these days.

And the weird thing is, obviously Apple Notes was not intended to be a place where celebrities lay down their sins and apologize, but somehow it has morphed into a platform where anybody, whether they're Drake or just some random influencer on Twitter, can load up this app and use it to tell the world that they're sorry. Now, if you're a regular person who doesn't end up often having to apologize to giant mobs of angry people on the internet, then you probably just use the Notes app to make your shopping list or to jot down ideas.

You know, honestly, one of the inspirations for this episode came from a meme I saw online, where it's showing a handshake, representing two ideas coming together. And the one hand is celebrities apologizing, the other hand is regular people making grocery lists, and the place that those hands are shaking together is at the Apple Notes app.

Later in the show, I'm going to be talking to a user experience designer to find out from a design perspective why the Apple Notes app is so appealing to all of us. But first, we're going to hear from Kara Brown. She is an expert on celebrities and pop culture, and not only does she write about pop culture, she also writes for TV and she's the co-host of the podcast Keep It. Kara explained why she thinks celebrities use Apple Notes to make their apologies, and whether it's an effective way to tell the world that you're sorry.

AD: So, let's break this down a little bit. We're talking today about Apple Notes, which is the Notepad app that just comes on an iPhone. It comes on your basic phone. Can you talk a little bit about, what is an Apple Notes apology? Or what are the messages that people send out using Apple Notes on social media?

KB: Yeah, so an Apple Notes apology is generally made by a celebrity after they have said or done something unsavory. It's hard to really trace when it began, but I think it's one of those things where you say, "Apple Notes apology" and everyone knows what you mean. And so, an example is maybe Lena Dunham, who has been a celebrity who has apologized a lot. Usually they'll compose some sort of message where they apologize and they explain themselves, and take back their words, or whatever it is, and then they'll just screenshot the Notes app, and screenshot what they typed and either tweet that, or put it on Instagram. And that's an Apple Notes apology, basically.

AD: And maybe you could talk a little bit even about what they look like? They've got that embossed text, like they look a little bit like it's a wedding invite or something, right?

KB: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, the funny thing about the Notes app is it's not really meant to be something you're showing people. It's sort of...it's just a functional tool, so you still sort of see the tabs to go back to your other notes and settings and all of that. And I think often it's kind of gray when you see the background and the black text. So, it's not really...there's certainly no aesthetic choices being made when you're doing this.

AD: If you were a #problematic celeb and you keep screwing up, you have choices though, right? You could do, I guess, a YouTube video. You could talk to people; you could have your PR person put out a press release. What do you think makes somebody go to, "I'm going to put this Apple Note up on my Instagram or up on my Twitter"?

KB: I think the decision to do the Notes app is tied to, more generally, the way that celebrities are using social media. So more than ever, it feels like you have access to famous people, because they can tweet at you and you can tweet at them, and maybe they'll respond back or they'll like your tweet. And the same thing goes for Instagram. And so what I think, the reason that people gear towards Apple Notes apologies is because it feels a little bit more authentic, I think, in their mind. Rather than having a publicist release a statement, you know, to the press, this is the celebrity going directly to the fans, directly to the people. Whether or not this is actually true, I think the assumption is also that this is something that they composed themselves, that this is just them getting things off of their chest and it's the most authentic version of their voice and there wasn't a team of publicists involved, although I don't necessarily think that's true in some scenarios.

AD: So Notes makes it real, right? That's like, "this is really from this person" and "this is where the truth is"?

KB: Yes.

AD: Okay.

KB: And I think it's supposed to feel like we're really supposed to take the apology, because you can imagine them picking up their phone and looking really torn and just trying to find the right words. And it's just them putting their heart out there and then tweeting it.

AD: Right. And even if they did a video, even if it's a Snapchat or an Instagram video, they've got the lights and they've got all this stuff and it feels a little more artificial.

KB: And I mean, there's something too with an apology to just saying what you need to say and being done with it. I would worry, depending on who I was, that putting myself on video like that...it also gives people a lot more room to criticize you. And so you could watch a video and say, "Well, he doesn't look sorry." Or, "Why did she smile at the end of that if she's really sorry?" It seems like it could very easily make things worse for you.

AD: Right. Do you think there are celebrities that, like, if they go back in their Notes folder, they've got like 10 different apologies all lined up? Like, that's all their Notepad is?

KB: I think Lena Dunham has a lot. I think Azealia Banks has a lot. Hers, they're not always quite apologies, which is the other funny thing with the "Apple Notes apology." Because sometimes it's just people explaining themselves further and it's not really an apology, although maybe they think that it is. But those two are two people I know who have apologized a lot.

AD: So let's take it back, though. If we go back in history, who do you think should have the big Apple Notes folder full of apologies? Like, who should have been tweeting their Apple Notes out there themselves if we look in history?

KB: Well, we just celebrated Indigenous Peoples' Day, so Christopher Columbus would be a prime suspect for it.

AD: That might be a little bigger than Apple Notes is capable of.

KB: Yeah, he certainly wouldn't be able to make up for anything, but I would imagine he'd have a lot of things to apologize for. It's not that far back in history, but I feel like if it existed, Joe Biden might have done an Apple Notes apology post-Anita Hill.

Joe Biden: Can you tell the committee what was the most embarassing of all the incidents that you have alleged...?

Anita Hill: I think the one that was the most embarassing was...

I don't know how sorry he still is, but at least in terms of the optics of it? That seems like the type of, "I'm a real guy" thing, and "I really feel bad for what I've done." It seems like a Notes app apology might have been the way for him.

AD: Is there any other medium that has that? Like, if you — God forbid you have an Android phone or you're in someplace you don't have access to Apple Notes — but you have to put out a sincere apology to the world for what you've done. Where do you go? What app do you use?

KB: I mean, I've seen people use Instagram a lot, and they'll maybe do it in the caption. Although I personally hate very long Instagram captions; this is not what this medium was for. It's for pictures. I don't need two paragraphs in a caption, which to me necessarily is not a caption. But I see that pretty often too. The funny thing about those is whatever image they've chosen to use when they're doing the apology in the caption, because that feels tricky to me. Like, what's something that's contrite and can't be misconstrued, and makes it clear that you're about to apologize? I'm not really sure.

AD: This may be its own app at some point, right? It's just all apologies. That's all we do here.

KB: Right. Just all apologies. I feel like I've seen some people handwrite things and then take a picture of them. I know recently, and this was not an apology, but the director Boots Riley was responding to Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, and he wrote a very long document in Word. It was like a three-page Word document that he, I guess, screenshot and uploaded. I'm not exactly sure how he did that, but I did not enjoy that. That was too long.

AD: Okay, so that's the "too far." Like, you are too writerly if you're busting out Microsoft Word to do your messaging on social media. Just get a blog or, like, go somewhere else.

KB: Yeah. Right. Or write an op-ed. Go on a podcast. It's just...nobody needs three pages screenshot. So, then you have to zoom in, you know, because you're not actually in Word.

AD: There's no dignity to zooming in on the picture of the text.

KB: No.

AD: So, a personal question. If you had an apology to make in your life, how are you sending that to that person that you've wronged, or the people that you've wronged?

KB: Well if I only hurt one person, I think I would probably do a text or a call situation. But if I had to apologize to a bunch of people — which, you know, of course will never happen to me — I'll never ...

AD: Just for this podcast. That's it.

KB Just for this podcast. I think I'd probably tweet it, to be honest, than do the Notes app. Something about the Notes app, too, it just feels like it opens yourself up to ridicule that I don't want. I would probably do a concise but eloquent Twitter chain.

AD: And you would do a thread?

KB: I'd thread it. Yeah, I'd probably thread it. I mean, hopefully, I don't have that much to apologize for. If I could get it out in one tweet, that would be ideal. But, yeah. I think I would thread it.

AD: Well, I think we have explored the boundaries of how we perform apologies today. I will trust you, Kara, to be the authority on how celebrities should deploy this power of theirs. Thank you so much for joining us on Function.

KB: Thank you for having me.

AD: After the break, we'll hear from Regine Gilbert, a senior user experience designer, about why Apple Notes is so appealing to all of us.

"We like things that are simple, we like things that are easy, and we like things that are accessible. So if something is already built into your phone, they're gonna use it right away." -- Regine Gilbert

AD: Welcome back to Function. I'm Anil Dash. Almost every celebrity who's ever had to say they were sorry used Apple Notes, whether it was Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner, the Migos, Lena Dunham...the list goes on. And it even includes Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, who has tweeted screenshots of notes that he's written using the Apple Notes app.

Now Kara just explained that these Apple Notes apologies can sometimes seem more genuine, or more sincere, than a canned statement from a publicist or some regular press release. But what is it about the app from a design perspective that makes it such a good fit, whether you're writing a grocery list or offering an apology to millions of fans?

Regine Gilbert is a user experience designer and a professor at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering. And what user experience — or UX designers — focus on is the ways we interact with a product. And in their case, they see everything as a product. It could be an app or a website, or even a paper form that you use at the DMV. What UX designers focus on is making sure products are usable, functional, simple, and accessible.

But as you'll hear in a second, what user experience designers are especially concerned about is how we feel about the product we're interacting with. And the way we feel about apps and software is becoming ever more important, because this tech is integrated into every part of our lives now. I talked to Regine about the Apple Notes app, why we like using it, and what that says about the ways we interact with technology.

AD: Regine Gilbert is joining us today. Welcome.

Regine Gilbert: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

AD: So you're an expert in what we in the tech industry call a UX designer. Talk to us about what UX stands for and what that work means.

RG: Sure. UX stands for user experience, and at the end of the day, we hope to make experiences better for people. I like to tell people that UX is platform agnostics, so it could range from service to something digital to something physical. My students, this semester, at NYU are working with the Legal Aid Society on the arraignment process, which is paper. It could range in medium, and what the intent is is to make things easier, usable, and better for people so that they feel good when they're using the product, service, or whatever it is that they're using.

AD: When we talk about design, a lot of people think of visual design. What are the fonts you're using or the colors or something like that. That's just one aspect of overall user experience.

RG: There's so much to user experience. I say, "You ask five different people, they'll tell you five different things," and I'll give you my personal definition. Either you feel good doing something or you don't, and there is no middle. It's like things are a hell yes or they're a no.

AD: Let's start at the building blocks here. Everybody that's got an iPhone that's running iOS has got this Apple Notes app. Talk to me about what's the purpose of that. Why do we have it? What's the real reason we're supposed to be using this thing?

RG: Well, that's a very good question. I'm not sure of the real reason, however I do know that it's an application that you can have on all your different devices. It's all about keeping us on our devices, right?

AD: Stay connected to Apple.

RG: Screen time says it's not about that, but it can be. So having the functionality to have the app on your phone, on your tablet, on your laptop — it's something you could use. It's native, so it's already built into whatever you're using. So it's something that people want to use because it's there.

AD: So, it comes built in. And this is a long tradition, right? You go back to the early days of the Mac or Windows or whatever; they've always had a little notepad app, right?

RG: Yes.

AD: And then, more recently, you have whatever it is...Evernote or Apple Notes...there's a couple of apps that do this, but that basic functionality is almost like a building block you take for granted.

RG: Right. We used to write on paper. I think back 11 years ago we used to have the iHome. Because we were so used to having alarm clocks, and then all of a sudden our phones became our alarm clocks. And our phones have replaced so many things that we were used to using on a daily basis that we don't anymore. We don't carry around a pad of paper, so what do we use? We open up our phone and we put a note in.

AD: So you are, among many other things, an educator.

RG: Yes.

AD: You talk to your students about this Apple Notes situation, and they are coming up in a world where this behavior happens every day. Whoever they love, whatever they listen to, whatever they watch, every celebrity they know is taking their turn being the problematic one. And more often than not, [they're] probably going to tweet or go to Tumblr and share that Apple Notes note. What do your students think about this phenomenon?

RG: So I teach at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, and these are all engineering students. They're very savvy; they're very tech savvy. I asked them a question last night because I was curious. "When you wake up, do you pick up your phone within the first ten minutes of waking?" And they all raised their hand.

AD: Oh yeah.

RG: And I asked, "For those of you who have iPhones, how many of you used Notes?" And everybody that used an iPhone all raised their hand. So I said, "Well, why do you use it?" People said, "It's easy, it's there, I can send things to wherever I want to send them to. I used to send things to myself, but now I just put it in Notes. I can send it to my friends. I can send it to my classmates." And at the end of the day, it was about it being easy. And being there.

AD: And let's talk a little bit about the design choices in this app. It's got this bright yellow all over it with some sort of paper texture thing going on. Talk to me a little bit about what you see when you look at, through a designer's eyes, Notes.

RG: Well it gives us a sense of familiarity because it looks like paper, right? And no matter where you are from, you use paper. You used paper with lines on it. The text that's used, it looks somewhat like some writing. I mean, back in the day they used Comic Sans, so it just looks silly. But, nowadays, it looks like something you could write.

AD: Like handwriting.

RG: Yeah. You can make things bold, italic...you can add in images now...you can do a lot of different things. If you're using your iPad, maybe you're sketching something out [in Notes]. So there's all these different things you could do now, and it's reminiscent of paper.

AD: That's interesting too, because back in the day, iOS and all the Apple devices, they had that effect of sort of trying to look like real things. They're trying to look like a real calculator; they're trying to look like a real clock. And then [the design] went flat. Everything is just real simple with a white background, maybe red or blue letters...something like that. And that was it. But Notes, Notes is still hanging on, right? It's got paper; it looks like you just tore it off of a legal pad.

RG: The funny thing about us as people is that our behavior changes so slowly, but the technology is changing quickly. And those things that are familiar to us, we kind of like to hold on to. Because when people change anything, it's an uproar.

AD: That raises this question. We have our apps and our devices trying to comfort us, trying to make us feel familiar, this is what you know. Yet, these handheld devices are what leave us hanging out there where we say wild things on social media or when we get ourselves in trouble. And all of a sudden, whether you're a regular person or you're a celebrity, it's time to make it right. Gotta make an apology, gotta get things square. And now, it seems that people are finding Apple Notes as the way to start to do that.

RG: It's very interesting in terms of behavior that people are choosing to pour their hearts out in this app. Things and thoughts that they wouldn't normally share with someone, they're putting them down and then they're sharing it out there to the public. People used to publicly go out or go on [television] shows, but now we have all these different platforms where people can have a note, they can send it to Twitter, they can send it to [Instagram], I can send it wherever I want to send it easily. And I think that's what's changed. You don't have to actually physically go somewhere and make an announcement. You don't have to be Drake and go on a radio show and say, "I'm sorry for what I did back in the day when they made me do all those things." Right? You literally send this message with one tap.

AD: An apology is a vulnerable thing. You're putting yourself out there and you're sort of letting yourself be subject to the whims of the public. And do you think that that Notes being designed mainly for yourself and not for writing to other people is part of why people can be vulnerable there?

RG: Having that familiarity of having it looking like paper or having it be like that journal you wrote in when you were little and being able to share that to the people you care about? If you're a celebrity, those are your fans. And you don't really care about the haters because you want to talk to your fans.

AD: So whether it was Notes or some other app, what would you want to design into our phones and into our devices to encourage us to be vulnerable in that way? To encourage us to express those feelings? If you could change something in Notes to say it would be better for sharing your feelings, what would you want them to change?

RG: I think when you read Notes, and this goes for text or anything that we read, we read it in the state that we're in, not the intent of the sender. And so if there were a way to really express the emotions of the person who's actually sending that message versus the reader, that would be great. There are applications out there, I use Marco Polo with my friends. We're in different states, and we are able to talk to each other and see each other, and see each other's kids, and see all these things that we couldn't get through a text or even through Instagram because we're talking to each other and we're actually having a conversation. So I think if you could build in a way to hear that other person's voice and actually have a conversation, that would be a nice additional feature.

AD: Going the other way, do you think there are even more apps that are gonna be repurposed and find unexpected uses? Is there a common pattern where people sort of take these tools and make them their own?

RG: I think so, yeah. People always figure out a way to work around things. We all text, right? And when texting was invented, it wasn't for people who could hear. It was made for deaf people. So a lot of these things I think that are kind of adaptive end up being used by everybody. I encourage my designers to design for those extremes, because you want to think about everybody who could possibly be using your product. I think there'll be ways and we've already seen it in other forms where people adapt things. So, yeah, we'll see how it goes.

AD: That's an interesting point, because I think a couple years back when Frank Ocean was writing on Tumblr by taking screen shots of the TextEdit app on his Mac and desktop app. And he's on Tumblr, where you can write as much as you want; it's not 140 characters. You can put as many words as you want. And clearly he must of felt it signified something to have the screen shot of that app, to write there, and to not copy and paste it. Do you think that there's meaning in that? Is that something that an artist is expressing by doing that?

RG: I think that they're showing that it's them doing it, because a lot of people know when it comes to the social there's whole teams...

AD: Right, the social media manager.

RG: Yeah, the social media manager using Hootsuite or whatever they're using in order to get things out there to the public. So when you see a message that's a note or a text editor, and that person is posting it directly, you know it's from them. So I think that's where people want to say, "Hey, this is really me."

AD: We see this phenomenon of everybody creating these apologies, using Apple Notes, and we talk about it. It resembles paper, so it evokes something that we know is familiar, but is this real contrition? Is this effective? Does this have the desired result where it makes somebody reflect on their mistakes or does it really help them reconnect with whomever they've wronged?

RG: Well, it all goes back to what that intent is and what mood the receiver is in. In user experience, we design these experiences but we don't know what the outcome's going to be really. We can design for the best thing. We could test with a lot of people. We can do all these things to figure out things, but at the end of the day, how somebody accepts something is totally individual and unique and based on if somebody's in a bad mood and they read your apology, they could care less about your apology. If they're in a good mood, they may accept it. It depends so many times on that receiver, no matter what that intent is.

AD: All right. Let's say the unthinkable happens and you are the person who has to offer your public, your fans, an apology. How would you do it? How would you share that message?

RG: I would share it in a video because, for me, I think hearing my voice and seeing my face — me showing my sincere regret for what I could have done — would be the most real thing for me. That's how I would do it, but everybody's different. Some people feel more comfortable writing it out. If you do, then do it that way, but, for me, it would be a video because I have friends who are blind and stuff, so I would think about them hearing my voice and those who can see me, see me, and see my sincerity and hopefully believe me.

AD: You're an expert in what we in the tech industry call a UX. Talk to us about what UX stands for and what that work means.

RG: Sure. UX stands for user experience, and at the end of the day, we hope to make experiences better for people. I like to tell people that UX is platform agnostic, so it could range from service [design] to something digital to something physical. My students this semester at NYU are working with the Legal Aid Society on the arraignment process, which is [done on] paper. It could range in media, and what the intent is is to make things easier, usable, and better for people so that they feel good when they're using the product, service, or whatever it is that they're using.

AD: When we talk about design, a lot of people think of visual design — what are the fonts you're using or the colors or something like that. That's just one aspect of overall user experience.

RG: There's so much to user experience. I say, "You ask five different people, they'll tell you five different things," and I'll give you my personal definition. Either you feel good doing something or you don't, and there is no middle. It's like things are a hell yes or they're a no.

AD: We've been diving deep into this conversation about Apple Notes and really starting to think about how this app that was never designed to fulfill this purpose has started to take on a completely different role in society. I think some of the deepest insights we've gotten have been thanks to your expertise in user experience. Regine, thank you so much for joining us on Function.

RG: Thank you.

"The funny thing about us as people is that our behavior changes so slowly, but the technology is changing quickly." -- Regine Gilbert

AD: All right. This week on Function, we have gone deep on Apple Notes, maybe thinking more about this little app than anybody except for Apple themselves, and Apple Notes is a weird app. It's got this weird, crinkly paper look to it, and it doesn't have a whole lot of features, but maybe making it more complicated wouldn't be much better because we think about other tools like video instead of text. Notice that Regine said, "Video might make an apology seem more sincere and like somebody really meant it," but Kara said, "Video might be something that gets picked apart more and more criticized and people would think the expression on your face and the tone of your voice wasn't exactly right."

Apologies are one of the hardest things that any of us can do in our lives, and it only gets tougher if you're a public figure that has to offer a public apology, but they're important because it's important for people to be vulnerable if they've got a platform or a voice in the world. But also, it's a good way to establish norms about what's acceptable or when you've crossed the line.

That makes me wonder if maybe it's the constraints in Apple Notes that make it really good for apologies. Because the app doesn't do a whole lot, so it lets us focus on the hard part, which is telling the world "I'm really sorry that I screwed up."

That's it for this week. Next week on Function, we're going to take a deep dive into another important question in Internet culture, why is it okay to embed a bunch of GIFs of an entire movie online, but not the whole movie itself?

Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our associate producer is Maurice Cherry. Nishat Kurwa is the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network. Our engineers are Srinivas Ramamurthy and Jarrett Floyd. Thanks to Jelani Carter for your help this week. Our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland. Big thanks to the entire team at Glitch.

You can follow me on Twitter at @AnilDash., and of course, you can always check out Function at glitch.com/function. Please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you listen, and we'll be back next week with a brand new episode.