What is the good life? Philosophers, wise men, preachers, televangelists, self-help gurus — all have tried to answer the question of how we should live and thrive. Some have been driven by a sense of moral duty and religious zeal, others by a quest for power and money, but for millennia they have never lacked a wide and willing audience of those eager to better themselves and the world around them.
Unlike those who came before her, the guru who created one of the early 21st-century's most influential moral instructions wasn't an eloquent writer or a charismatic performer. She was a programmer, and she made an application called The Guide to Greatness. Most knew it simply as The Guide.
Sophia Moreno was the only child of Ernesto and Claudia Moreno; Ernesto was a union representative at a chemical engineering plant in their home town of Santo Andre, while Claudia taught physics at Universidade Federal do ABC. Sophia had a quiet childhood playing games and studying hard; it wasn't until she studied computer science at Rio de Janeiro that she stepped onto a path where her actions would change the world.
On arriving in Rio, Sophia struggled with depression as she tried to fit in with her new surroundings. She flirted with religion, falling in with an evangelical Christian student society for a few months, then just as quickly she left, burying herself in work. Over the next two years, she excelled at her studies, regularly scoring in the top five percent of her class and earning a placement in Seattle at Amazon.
But according to her friends, Sophia often complained about her unfulfilling job at Amazon that saw her "shaving milliseconds off the shopping experience”. Soon, she left to pursue her own projects. Her first independently made app was a comparison shopping utility and sold 5,000 copies. Her second app, an exam revision helper, sold a mere 700 copies.
Sophia's third app was The Guide, launched in 2015 after a year of development. Within 12 days, it had sold 10,000 copies. In 12 weeks, it reached a million; in 12 months, eight million; and after two years, 100 million copies.
"The Guide is about connections. Look around you. At the clothes on your body, the chair you're sitting on, the walls beside you, and the phone in front of you. Everything we touch, eat, watch, and play is created by other people in this world."
That is the message that greets users when they first launch The Guide. It continues:
"Every one of us wants to become happy and successful and strong, but we can't do that if we just focus on ourselves and ignore those whose lives touch us. Everything and everyone is connected, every second of every day. The Guide will show you how to see those connections, how to harness them, and how to help yourself and everyone around you to gain strength."
It's not very original. But as a smartphone app that users kept at their side day and night, The Guide was in a unique position to directly interact and intervene in its followers' lives. It helped them set and achieve goals, and it guided their behaviour in more subtle ways, from special greetings when they woke up, to inspirational messages before important meetings marked in their calendars. Naturally, being integrated with the online social networks and casters of the day, The Guide had a wide network of supporters right from its launch, meaning that users could find like-minded souls instantly.
The Guide launched with 20,000 words of text divided up into 100 lessons, such as “How to live in the moment” and “Why we must forgive”, along with 25 interactive exercises ranging from emotion journals to games that helped users identify things in their surroundings that gave them joy. Naturally, The Guide took full advantage of the 'gamification' craze of the teens, hooking unwitting users with the lure of experience points and levelling up. Sociologist and app historian Professor Colin Leigh explains its sensational success:
"The Guide directly addressed the lack of community and purpose felt by many in rich countries experiencing the 'speed-up'. Traditional religious groups were too conservative to take full advantage of new technology, and the corporations and organisations that did have the expertise simply couldn’t comprehend or weren't interested in more spiritual matters. Moreno's background as a hybrid developer-guru marked a genuine turning point."
Not all of the millions who bought The Guide were active participants. Some bought it out of curiosity, others used it more as a positive-psychology productivity app. Even so, more than a third used the app every day and took part in the Community Rituals that became so crucial to the app's success.
These rituals included everything from dinners and parties to exercise clubs, celebrations, and protests, and helped cement the bonds between followers in the real world. The fact that they were expected to actually turn up somewhere and meet with strangers in order to progress in The Guide set a punishingly high bar; a bar that was later recognised as real insight on Moreno's part. Moreno had correctly understood that the retreat of organised religion and comparable social structures had left a vacuum that people desperately wanted to fill, something she felt The Guide could do.
For a while, it seemed as if The Guide itself was becoming a kind of religion. However, despite Moreno continuing to provide updates to the app for the next three years, it became increasingly clear that she was deeply ambivalent about the success of The Guide; in her few public statements, she questioned whether her followers understood the meaning of her app and wondered if she had led some people astray. Most scholars speculate that the weight of responsibility she felt towards her followers was more than she wanted to bear.
Four years after its launch, Sophia Moreno sent out one final update. In it, she explained that she was delighted and proud of what her followers had accomplished, but now it was time for them to pursue their own 'paths to strength' independently.
The Guide's user base fractured overnight. Some larger groups began developing their own open-source versions of the app, while competing apps made a landgrab for users, offering to transfer the achievements and experience points they had earned in The Guide to their own apps. As quickly as The Guide rose, it vanished.
Sophia Moreno retreated from public life, living off her revenues from The Guide and occasionally releasing obscure interactive artistic experiments. Yet her app, as short-lived as it was, proved there was a desire for a philosophy of life that complemented a market-based mindset with one rooted in communities and gifts. As for established religions, it was a reminder that their strength was not to be taken for granted.