Stranger Danger?

For the past many weeks our cadre of grad students has been vetting ideas about the design of an exhibit that will compel complete strangers to have some sort of meaningful conversation. A lot of the subject matter has been fascinating—everything from vintage postcards to Dr. Seuss and socially-mapped campus spaces—but it just came to me today that at the heart of all of our brainstorming we have been operating on an unspoken premise: that people fundamentally hate talking to people they don’t know. Even our most stunning social technology strategies have been posited in the form of a ploy that will cause people to socialize with those that surround them when they ordinarily might not. We have assumed that if we were transparent then our social experiment might not work or be interesting, or even worse, people might avoid the exhibit like most of those with whom we associate the word “stranger,” like the toothless lady on the 49 bus with the 10 dogs named after silent film stars which she needs to tell you all about, or the slightly reclusive and inappropriate ‘friend-of-a-friend’ we are forced to exchange pleasantries with at a party. But is this really true? Are people categorically against talking to people they don’t know? Or are they merely held back from doing this by an array of fears, prejudices and social conditionings? Do we need to be oblique, or could a functional exhibit be based around the idea of ‘strangers?’

To go some way toward answering these questions I went out in search of precedents. I wanted to find successful and transparent attempts to get strangers to talk. What I found was Omegle, a devastatingly simple website invented by high school senior Leif K-Brooks that allows you to push a button and be connected through IM with another random person who just did the same thing. 1327 users are doing it right now—voluntarily talking with a randomly-selected stranger. The site opened just a month ago and it has already gone viral on an array of blogs and news sources. Aside from ensuring a likely very bright future for its young inventor, it more importantly shows that people (or at least a healthy number of people) actively seek contact with strangers.

So what is the appeal of using a service like Omegle? Well, for starters, its participants are self-selecting. Omeglers come at will for the expressed purpose of talking with a stranger. There is no ‘hook’ nor are the participants inveigled. Elementary as it may seem, I think this is a noteworthy approach. Regardless of the form our exhibit ends up taking or the content it enfolds, this kind of transparency could create a context for conversation precisely because visitors would be declaring themselves open to the prospect by entering. Engagement, in this case, becomes a socially safer activity because the risk of rejection and disinterest is minimized. Also most people abhor a bait and switch, and in a society full of them folks have become savvy and equally as cynical in spotting such phenomena. I would hate for our exhibit to read this way. The second thing that Omegle has going for it is the anonymity of the internet, this allows users a certain measure of digital distance from each other which works to thwart a lot of the social anxieties associated with meeting somebody new. If we could come up with a real-world analogue for this, some sort of interactive message board or installation, an asynchronous leaving and responding to content where the dialog exists in a space by itself, unrelated to the actual people responsible for it, it may actually encourage people to contribute more freely. I personally love the idea of doing this with video, so the human element is retained, but within the safe structure of this asynchronous format. This could also be part of a strategy to scale the level of personal-ness or face-to-face-ness of the dialog we are trying to create, since the thought of parking yourself next to someone and having a heart-to-heart may be simply off the social menu for most, even in the most provoking of contexts. If we allow people to select their level of involvement it might open more people up to the possibility of actually participating.

Thinking upon the whole topic of our exhibit has made me wonder what exactly we are hoping for people to get out of all of this ‘stranger talk?’ Talking, in and of itself, has no innate value, nor is the mere act of speech involving a stranger. Where the potential lies is in the making of connections and realizations with and about people who we may misunderstand or find undesirable, uninteresting, too different, or simply anonymous. At its best it could be an avenue for mutual understanding, creativity, real humanity. In this sense, it is not just ‘talk’ that we are after, because we talk with a lot of strangers about the weather, or our coffee order, or any of a number of banalities that leave very little impression upon the way we conduct our lives or think about others. What we should be after is the facilitation of some kind of interchange that will make a stranger less strange, less distant, more human, more valuable. Everybody is somebody else’s stranger, and perhaps this is an idea that we could pull open and look at—how can we look at the world and not see strangers but potentialities, people we can talk to.