Randonauting: The random coordinates app leading TikTok users to dead bodies

Since launching at the beginning of the pandemic, app Randonautica has exploded in socially distant popularity, but has led enthusiasts to discover some pretty gruesome things.

by Daisy Schofield
01 July 2020, 3:30pm

Image via TikTok

When a group of teenagers from Seattle decided to join in on a viral TikTok trend earlier this month, they surely could not have anticipated that their afternoon of fun would lead to their involvement in a police investigation. In a video now viewed over 21 million times, the teens are filmed wandering over a beach, before discovering a suitcase washed up on the rocks. They decide to open the case, and after recoiling from the overpowering smell they reveal to the shaky camera a bin liner containing what is later confirmed to be human remains.

“The moment I got back home, I broke down,” says TikTok user @UghHenry, who posted the video to TikTok. He wrote in the comments underneath the clip: “I still can’t sleep.”

"Randonauting" -- the new phenomenon and hobby that led the friends to stumble across the dead body -- involves using a random number generator to produce coordinates close to a player’s current location. There is a dedicated Randonautica app, which encourages users to set an intention before travelling to the coordinates, in the hope of uncovering synchronicities or coincidences. Many randonauts are claiming that the incident in Seattle is proof of the game’s supernatural powers.

In offering users an ideal socially distanced activity, the app -- which launched at the beginning of the year -- has been booming in lockdown. The ‘randonautica’ hashtag has so far amassed 176.5m views on TikTok, and earlier this month, YouTube star Emma Chamberlain documented her experiences trying out the app to her nine million subscribers, confirming that randonauting is no longer a niche interest confined to certain corners of the internet. In fact, it's been so popular, there have been reports of Randonautica crashing due to heavy traffic.

For many, the game has offered light relief and a welcome distraction at an exceptionally tumultuous moment in history. Alexa, a 21-year-old from California, started playing Randonautica at around the same time as the George Floyd protests erupted. “As a Black woman, I was feeling very overwhelmed and depressed by the information and events that I was fed every day,” she explains. “I wanted to just get my mind off of the world.”

In a now-viral TikTok, Alexa and a friend set their intention as her ‘mom’s lost dog’, Lala, who had disappeared a couple of weeks before the video was filmed. Their coordinates take them to the desert where, along the way, they encounter an “extremely friendly” dog they’d never met before. The dog starts guiding them to their final location, which ends up being three “perfectly lined-up” Joshua trees. “It was weird, because they’re usually scattered.”

Alexa took this as a sign that Lala was somewhere safe, adding that the “ripple effect” the app has on a user’s life is “enough of a reason to do it”. “Randonautica is meant to push you to explore the world beyond your clear path,” she explains. “It’s a magical, illogical, and often spooky adventure generated out of randomness.”

Deviating from a ‘clear path’ could be what allows randonauters to access new modes of perception. “Stepping out of your comfort zone activates a different kind of attention,” explains psychologist Roderick Main. "These types of practices encourage us to break from our rigid cause and effect way of thinking, and open us up to seeing other types of connections.”

Roderick says that having our routines, or paths, disrupted on an even greater scale by the pandemic has heightened the urge to find meaning and order in the universe. Owen, a 22-year-old from New York, claims this is a large part of the app's appeal. “Randonauting started off with quarantine-boredom,” he explains, “and progressed into this idea where I felt in control, in a climate where control is lacking”.

In a TikTok viewed over half a million times, Owen and his friend decide to "manifest" the word purple. When they arrive at their location, they are met with an entire lawn covered in purple flowers. On another Randonautica adventure, the pair set their intention to the word “love”, and subsequently encounter a van emblazoned with hearts on the way to their location. “It honestly felt very affirming in a time where so much is uncertain.”

As someone who already harboured supernatural beliefs, Owen says that the app “confirmed a lot of what" he already thought. Do people with spiritual inclinations experience these coincidences at a greater frequency? Magda Osman, a professor of experimental psychology, says there is no evidence to suggest this. However, they are more likely to use the supernatural as an explanation for their experience of coincidence.

Maddy, a 16-year-old from Maine, claims that randonauting vindicated her belief in the paranormal. When the coordinates took her and her sister to the place where their grandfather was buried, she came to what felt like an obvious conclusion. “We don’t visit his grave enough,” she explains, “so I honestly think he was trying to tell us to visit.” According to Magda, our brains are programmed to find these kinds of causal connections as a means of survival. “You can’t learn without being able to spot patterns and regularity,” she explains, “it is something built into the architecture of our mind.” For Maddy, the supernatural offered an answer consistent with her understanding of the world.

There's another explanation as to why people playing Randonautica might encounter more coincidences than usual. In a study, Magda found that the average person experiences one coincidence a week, however, “most of the time, we forget them, because they’re so trivial”. According to Magda, being primed to look for them by the app means it’s inevitable randonauters will encounter or notice them more.

This doesn’t mean we need to dismiss or ignore coincidences. They can in fact lead to “new scientific discoveries” and “different understanding about the world”, Magda explains. Not to mention, synchronicities can provide solace at a time when many people’s lives have been upended.

Whatever their explanation, the scale at which randonauting is now occurring means that there will likely be a whole load of, even more bizarre, coincidences in store.