Sunday, September 16, 2007

Talking Through Objects 2: The Rollercoaster Conundrum

Last week, I wrote about the ways that dogs can be useful social objects--and you had lots of good comments and input. This week, I'm hoping you can help solve a mystery on a similar topic.

You see, I've found another object that's a successful stranger-to-stranger social enabler, but this one is harder to understand. It's a rollercoaster; specifically, it's the 100 year old wooden coaster on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, the Giant Dipper. A couple months ago, I rode the Dipper for the first time. While standing on line, I noticed something surprising: when a car full of riders came back to the boarding area after their ride, people in line stuck out their hands to slap the hands of the riders in the car. I went back a couple months later to photograph it.

Step 1: people on line wait for rollercoaster.

Step 2:
people see car is coming and stick out their hands.

Step 3:
a successful "five" is given.

Why does this happen? It's not because the boardwalk is a social place. Sure, it's social, but people stick to their own "pods"--families, teens, adults--and don't diverge or merge. If you were to go out on the boardwalk proper, teeming with people on a summer night, and stuck your hand out, no one would give you five. So why do they do it at the rollercoaster?

Maybe it's because people are excited about the ride. Maybe it's because people waiting in line are bored and want something to break up the monotony. But the best reason I can imagine has to do with barriers and shared experience. Out on the boardwalk, or at the zoo or a museum, there's a common experience of the sights, sounds, smells, activities of the place. But since the spaces are largely open, it feels threatening to approach strangers. You'd have to do it face to face. You could be rejected, or overpursued, or any number of anxiety-inducing possibilities, and you can't hide or reasonably extract yourself from a negative situation.

On the line for the rollercoaster, on the other hand, there's a physical barrier separating the people in line from the people in the car. In fact, it's impossible for people in the car to have any kind of sustained interaction with people in line, because a. they are moving past the line-standers in a car with a restraining bar and b. they are required to leave the building when they depart the car. The interaction between strangers is necessarily short. There is a foregone conclusion that it will not be prolonged to the discomfort of either party. It's a controlled environment--and while neither individual is in control, the partially limiting barrier makes it feel okay to act atypically.

These "partially limiting barriers" are successful in other venues as well--most notably online, where it is personal anonymity rather than temporal transience that makes the interaction between strangers feel controlled. But it's the same inhibition that allows otherwise shy people to dance with strangers at clubs--for some people, loud music and a less intimate setting are opportunities for social interaction rather than limiters. It's also a reason that people will game with strangers; in that case, the games' rules form the partial barrier that facilitates social interaction.

But I'm not so sure of this. How do you interpret the Giant Dipper hand slapping? Where do you see barriers used as springboards for social behavior?

6 comments, add yours!:

Jason Jay Stevens said...

That's great--you went back a couple months later to take pictures!

I like your analysis.

There are two other phenomenons to which I'd associate this one at the rollar coaster:

One is the high five gesture that teammates give the player who has had a successful round or scored or point. Arguably, the returning riders are due some congratulations for their safe return.

The other is the impulse to breach barriers, with which most of us seem to have been born, but outgrow after we've been "zapped" a couple times. I suppose a daring few initiate the rollar coaster breach-of-barrier and receive--against expectation--a rewarding pay-off. Nothing feels better than rewards for risks; the crowd follows suit.

More facets for what is probably a multi-faceted phenomenon. All these things come together and manifest into something wonderful. Awesome!

Hanna said...

Nice observation, Nina! I agree with you in your conclusions. You can see something similar, allthough much less celebratory, when strangers smile shyly at eachother while waiting in one of those long barricaded snakelike queues. (Like the ones entering the Vatican or the Louvre.) There is the pysical closeness and the shared experience, but still with the barricades and the movement of the queue to prevent you from prolonging the interaction.

I had not thought of the teammates, and the successful return that Jason mentioned in the previous comment! Very nice!

robin white owen said...

Hi Nina,
Interesting question. Right after I read this post I was walking down Houston Street in NYC, past a playground where kids laughing and playing kickball were separated from us adults by a chain link fence. Every grown up who walked by turned to look at the kids and smiled, and then turned to look at the other adults walking by and smiled. Maybe any barrier that separates an audience from a performer/s creates the opportunity to breach the everyday barriers we create around ourselves. Hopefully this is tangentially related to your question, as least!

wren said...

As a santa cruzian, this phenomenon is very familiar to me. Besides the act of reaching out to connect with others, there is often a mean goal in peoples actions at this venue. Namely, that there is a tradition of spitting on the hand extended for the 'high five.' The sorts of anonymity provided by the partial barriers in place also allow for behavior that stretches definitions of appropriate.

One of the things I've noticed while observing this phenomenon is that mostly adolescents and children take part. It might be worth it to visit again to figure out in more detail who's doing what to whom.

Nina Simon said...

Wow, all these great thoughts. Robin, another person made a similar observation about watching children in the post that preceded this one, about the power of dogs as social objects. In some ways kids are harder (they have so many of their own needs compared to dogs or coasters) but they also can be wonderful connectors. It's probably best when there's a barrier like a fence (or adults sitting in bleachers watching kids play a game), so that you can interact with others about the kids, rather than having to focus all your energy on them.

And Wren, I had no idea! Spitting! Of course, in a strange way that makes people _more_ connected... but I think your point is right on. The barrier creates an opportunity for inappropriate behavior, whether good (hand slapping) or gross (spit slapping).

b said...

this is how we italians do "it" ;)

besides that I think there might be a physical cinestetic meme floating around in the place that iduces people to play toghether