Being a teenager is hard enough — adolescents often cope with overwhelming emotions, suffer social anxiety, and struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin. Being a teenager in 2020 is even harder: The pandemic sank most of the world’s population into uncertainty and isolation.
Generation Z — those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s — could be the most isolated generation of teens yet. In 2019, a survey conducted by Cigna found that 79% of Gen Z late adolescents feel alone — and that was even before the COVID-19 pandemic introduced such loneliness-compounding concepts as social distancing, remote learning, and lockdowns.
In their attempts to deal with all of the stress and loneliness, teens turn to technology and online communities for support and social interactions.
Today’s Gen Z teens are digital natives who, because they were born into the world of digital technology, don’t just use the internet as a utility — they see it as an opportunity for self-expression and self-development. They spend an average of seven hours online each day, and that’s not including screen time for homework or school, according to a 2019 Common Sense Media report.
There are many uplifting examples of teens using social media to change the world for the better: Greta Thunberg, Billie Eilish, and Emma González, for example. Unfortunately, today’s internet is also rife with toxicity, anxiety, and bullying, all of which make the processes of self-expression and self-development so much harder for teen girls.
The rampant toxicity online is what led friends Greta McAnany and Lauren Tracy to create a supportive big sister digital product. As millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—they always wanted a support group growing up but didn’t have access to anything like this.
“We’ve always had this desire to help people become their best, most confident selves,” McAnany said. “Especially in young women, you see the suicide rates rising, you see anxiety, depression, loneliness rising. We feel like if we can create the right tools, we can combat a lot of that and turn things around, so that young women can really take more control over their identity.”
Their solution? Blue Fever, a digital emotional community that encourages a healthy internet experience using empathetic human-machine interaction—“an ideal big sister.”
“Blue Fever is on a mission to create an online space for teenage girls that increases belonging, builds resilience, and reduces overwhelm,” McAnany said.
HeyBlue, Blue Fever’s first product, is a text message service. Over 350,000 teenage girls from across the country have messaged with Blue, a digital big sis who listens, acknowledges, and normalizes their problems, providing support and wisdom. Blue understands a wide variety of hashtags shared by users, and sends a reply intended to boost a user’s mood and emotions.
A typical interaction can look like this:
Hey :) which of these are you feeling right now… #good #bad #meh or #other?
Remote schools #lonely
I’m sorry, everyone feels lonely sometimes :( Please text me which sparked this feeling for you: #friendless #loss #single #rejected #moreoptions
Even people who seem to have a great life feel lonely! It's normal, don't believe me? watch the video and give me a thumbs up/down if it helps!
McAnany calls Blue “a judgement-free, digital best friend that always responds to a text message,” which is why, according to Blue Fever, 85% of users remain subscribed to Blue’s text thread after 12 months.
This fall, Blue Fever launched in a private beta mobile app that will combine Blue with social interactions between teen girls. “Teens want to connect. Entertainment, activism, personal growth and connection, they all blend together for Gen Z,” McAnany said. “So really what we’re doing is creating a way that they can connect, but at the same time keep toxicity to a minimum as much as possible.”
This is not another social media app. Blue Fever is an emotional media app, filtering toxicity and creating inherently supportive online behavior. With the help of Blue, teen users will be able to offer support and wisdom to each other in times of need.
Over the past three years, Blue Fever built the empathetic AI at the heart of their service, which deeply listens, normalizes problems, and provides perspective.
McAnany and Tracy came to the tech world from theater and film. They began developing a prototype for a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service for millennial women, which curated content based on a user’s mood and emotions.
In 2017, the two founders participated in a startup accelerator where they ran a marketing channel through text messages, offering potential users different content depending on what was happening in their lives. They were surprised to discover that it wasn’t millennial women who were responsive and interested in their service—it was Gen Z girls.
McAnany remembers hearing from teens: “This feels like magic, how did you know I was going through a breakup?” and “This seems unreal, how did you know I was stressed about homework?”
The founders realized that they could help teens feel a little less alone through text messages, so they decided to turn it into a product. McAnany and Tracy pivoted from their idea of creating a media content service to building their own technology to support teen girls, which is how Blue Fever was born.
First, Blue was a simple call-and-response chatbot. Now, with added machine learning, Blue understands phrases. According to the company, Blue was based on a conversational AI and fed over 100 million interactions—including some from outside sources—from which the algorithm was able to create 50 thousand emotional pathways for hundreds of life situations. Blue continues to learn, now from its own conversations.
Blue’s heart is powered by humans—those who tell stories and form emotional connections—while its algorithms do what computers do best, collect and sort through data and make everything scalable. “We’re using tech to make what humans already do naturally (when we're allowed to be together) scalable— which is normalization and belonging,” McAnany said.
Now the big sis AI is expanding again, from a messaging product to a mobile app. According to the founders, with so much engagement the model was becoming economically unsustainable.
“We knew with the amount of engagement we had, if our company was going to be economically sustainable, the revenue model had to align with the value our product-led community was providing to users,” McAnany said. “In SMS, our high engagement and click through rates pointed to an ads model. We knew this would erode trust over time because we had seen it over and over again with social media.”
The Blue Fever team also felt that in order to continue moving forward with the company mission they needed a more dynamic user experience—giving real teens the opportunity to interact with each other.
“Our users repeatedly asked to interact with Blue and each other,” Tracy said. “Although they love Blue, because Blue does seem so human, a real human “big sis” was the ultimate experience we saw our users ask for. After HeyBlue, the next step is to give teens what they truly need—to feel emotionally connected to their peers in a deeper way than social media allows.”
In the Blue Fever app, users will be able to create a multimedia expression labeled by mood/life situation, choosing not only when it gets published but also who’s able to see it. In return for showing others their relatable moments, they receive positive digital “hugs” and media snippets (like animated stickers) from each other. They can even have safe magical note exchanges with their closest friends to feel more connected.
“Imagine a magical diary full of people who support you. We are taking an age old analog habit for self-expression and reflection, making it digital and adding the ability to relate and connect with others,” says McAnany.
Content will gain value over time and will be rated based on how supportive it is. Based on users’ actions and expressions, Blue will send them content care packages of related expressions from other teens, and group experiences that might help them feel less alone in their current situations.
According to the founders, Blue, a personified anti-toxicity AI, blocks bullying, trolling, and any other toxic content from entering the app in the first place. Even more impressively, Blue nudges users to avoid accidentally triggering other users.
Helping teens become their best selves is Blue’s mission, but McAnany and Tracy also want to reimagine what community support looks like online. “We’re creating a UX that feels fun—it’s not like therapy and not like work,” McAnany said, “and yet the experience is driven by an underlying wellness algorithm.”
In June, the Amazon Alexa Fund chose this mission-led female-founded startup to participate in Alexa Next Stage, Powered by Techstars, an eight-week program for early-stage and late-stage startups. “The support of mentors and the Alexa Next Stage program team was truly fantastic and unparalleled,” McAnany said. “It changed the way we think about our product and immensely impacted how we are building our business.”
During the Alexa Next Stage program, Blue Fever continued working on its mobile app, and was able to improve the experience based on mentors’ feedback. McAnany said that the main and most technically difficult lesson was to take a step back from the big goals and look at the basics—to study what’s important, ask critical questions, and simplify.
The other incentive to participate was the future: voice. Blue Fever founders were curious to find out how their experience could improve by incorporating this natural form of communication. “We need to look at all that we’ve built so far and understand how that could translate into a voice capacity,” McAnany said.
Blue Fever is continuing to work with teams at Amazon to find the best ways to integrate with Alexa, through an Alexa skill for example.
Support from the Alexa Fund is helping this startup grow—and in turn, the unique perspective of Blue Fever’s female-led team and teen users can make Alexa more helpful, accessible, and supportive for all customers.
“Our really big goals are to make sure that we create an environment that users love and that they return to, and that it adds value to their lives,” McAnany said.
In the near future, Blue Fever is hoping to remain proactive about mental health, not only by improving its technology to mitigate online toxicity and create empathy, but also to forge partnerships with crisis organizations.