Inside Citizen, the App That Asks You to Report on Crimes

"At the end of the day, this is a C corp: We are here to make money,” Frame says. “But we are here to make money responsibly. We want to deliver on a mission. We don’t want to compromise on our values. We want to make money for shareholders responsibly. That’s fuel. The way to build an engine that scales is to have capitalism working for you.”

The company says it doesn’t consider views, clicks, or time spent to be valuable metrics for measuring success. Frame says Citizen will never sell user data or serve ads to its users. But while its plans might not depend on engagement in the app, it does depend on the sheer volume of its user base. The company has not announced any specifics, but the general thrust of the plan is clear: Get enough users to be able to create a tiered experience, then sell subscriptions for premium features.

“The monetization indirectly follows,” Frame says. “The size of our network, that’s the size of the audience that we get to sell this next generation of safety features to. There will be features coming out available only to those who pay—beyond what Citizen offers today.”

Citizen depends on human beings. Algorithms and scanner-monitoring hardware can only take it so far. After all, alerts still have to be individually vetted and sent out by Citizen employees. Those alerts are received by users who interpret those messages, share them, and add to them by filming or commenting on a scene. The more videos are filmed, the more the app catches people’s attention and garners downloads. If Citizen has to grow before it can make money, then it has to entice people to use the app in the first place.

“Citizen will give you that power to be safe and informed and make better decisions,” says Dennis “Prince” Mapp, Citizen’s head of culture and community who has been with the company since nearly the beginning. “Instead of walking into a fire, I can walk away from the fire."The problem is, a person walking around the block to avoid a fire does not make for a very exciting marketing video. What captures people’s attention is footage of the fire itself or a kidnapped child or some straight-up terrorism. Citizen’s current marketing strategy relies on pointing to positive interactions captured on the app. In April, Citizen started to send users notifications containing what it calls Magic Moments—slickly edited videos that recall incidents where Citizen users came to the rescue or prevented themselves and others from falling victim to an awful tragedy. (Not all of them involved disaster porn. Magic Moments have included a celebration of essential workers and people reuniting a lost dog with its owner.)
Citizen can’t encourage users to get closer to danger or race across town to film a horrific incident; the Vigilante fiasco taught the team that lesson. But to show what the app is really capable of, it needs the participation and content provided by its users. It needs users who don’t just sit at home and gape at the screen while someone gets assaulted in a Trader Joe’s. The people who will take Citizen to the next level are the ones willing to go to the scene, to get the footage.To grow, Citizen needs videos. It needs content. It needs people like Anthony G.

New Live Crew

Anthony first got into Citizen after his appendix burst. A friend’s mom mentioned the app in passing, and Anthony grew fascinated with it as he recovered from his surgery. One day, after he was able to get up and about again, he smelled smoke and realized that a neighbor’s house had caught fire. He was home working with a tutor at the time. He begged them to take him outside to film the blaze.