I've written before about techniques for talking to strangers, looking at how buttons, buses, and dogs and can all be tools for participatory design. Today, we return to that well-loved topic and look more broadly at the conditions of participation. So as you read, please consider this small assignment: think of a notable encounter you have had with a stranger.
I used that instruction recently to kick off a meeting at a museum planning a participatory education space. Around the conference table, there were stories about love, aggression, and wackiness, extraordinary objects and unusual situations. One guy talked about a mysterious cellphone caller and the twenty minute mutual "how do I know you?" conversation that followed. There was a woman who married her cab driver, another who formed a lasting friendship over the improper use of a magnet. There was a self-aggregating group who toured an art exhibition. There were two fights, both involving parking spaces. And my favorite, from a designer who was initiated into a secret world of graffiti-ed walls behind elevator doors in his art college in an entirely silent exchange.
I love these stories because they highlight unique moments in our lives. They stand out, at least in America, because of their infrequency. We spend most of our time studiously ignoring strangers, and it takes extraordinary situations to overcome those cultural mores and fears. This morning I was at a fourth of July parade swarming with people and didn't talk to a single stranger. There was no reason, no opportunity, no desire to go out of my comfort zone and do so.
What compels you to talk to strangers? So far, I've assembled the following list of conditions for non-compulsory participatory encounters with strangers:
- Desperate Need for Information or Help -- used to find bathrooms, band-aids, and the time. These interactions are motivated by overwhelming personal desire which allows the requestor to overcome cultural barriers. Also, because the information or assistance sought is specific, the expectation is that there will be no further interaction beyond its provision. This makes the interaction feel "safe" for both parties. Interestingly, at the City Museum in St. Louis, these interactions (between visitors and staff) are intentionally promoted by a lack of wayfinding signage.
- Unsure of the Rules -- related to the above, but with more chance for sustained interaction. These occur when you enter a situation and need help understanding how to act--how to order your food, get in line, signal the bus driver. This situation is less dire than the above, and the interaction comes not out of personal need but social interest in "doing things properly." This frequently happens in long and confusing queues at airports, where strangers will create and communicate shared stories about where they should stand, what's going on, and what their best chance is of getting on a flight. People often take on "helper" roles in these situations, rising to the occasion to assist others in the absence of professional information and to reprimand those with aberrant rule sets (i.e. people who cut in line).
- Unusual Rules -- as in games and other situations in which a mutually respected third party authority creates a new set of rules that encourage strangers to interact. This occurs in speed dating, social gaming, and any time you are instructed to "turn to the person sitting next to you." In the background information about the alternate reality game SF0, the author calls the game "an interface for San Francisco," that is, a new rule set in which you are represented as a character who is and is not yourself. As they put it: "... most importantly, your character is able to do things that you may be unable or unwilling to do yourself. Your character doesn't recognize the artificial boundaries that prevent non-players from doing what they want to do." In other words, you are playing, and when playing, you are operating under new rules. The picture at the top of this post comes from a Flickr group called 100 Strangers, in which people take on the challenge of photographing strangers. That simple external task, supported by a collective and mediated by a device, empowers people to meet and learn each other's stories.
- Intimate Observation of an Extraordinary Event -- when two strangers "share a moment" instigated by an outside spectacle. The spectacle can be as mundane as a kid picking his nose or as profound as a UFO sighting. The key is that it is shared by just a few people. If a thousand people see a kid pick his nose, it's comedy. If two people in a crowd happen to be looking at the same moment at the kid and then notice each other and smile, it's intimacy. These encounters are often non-verbal but can still be intensely personal. I once watched a baby stroller almost tip over at the same time as another man. The mother was oblivious, but the man and I had an intense moment of shared protective watchfulness. The curator at the meeting earlier this week who ended up touring an exhibition with strangers did so because of a shared moment with another person who was looking "behind the exhibit" at the same time as him. Sometimes these kinds of moments are manufactured, as in the elevator graffiti story, by one stranger who chooses to reveal a secret spectacle to another. These non-accidental moments are not always pleasant--flashers fall in this category.
- Carrying Something Visible and Strange -- this is initiated by one person who turns him or herself into a kind of spectacle, whether by holding balloons, walking a dog, or wearing a wild hat. These visible identifiers become social objects that appeal differently to different people. You might enthusiastically approach a knitter while your friend would always walk up to whittlers. No matter the physical object, there are some people who will approach you to talk about it, even objects that connote non-social focus, like books or laptops. The object must, however, be distinctive enough to entice observers of the carrier/wearer to overcome social barriers and approach. In The Game, a very strange book about hitting on women, experts suggest that men wear flamboyant, ridiculous clothes to nightclubs as conversation starters. This can go overboard, however, as demonstrated by the image at the top. Unless we're at Disneyland (and for many people, even there), furry costumes do not inspire participatory encounters.
- Doing Something Visible and Aberrant -- Highly related to the above, exemplified by the NYC group Improv Everywhere. These activities are not always grounds for participatory encounters. If you are doing something too weird or well-scripted, people look at you as a show or a threat, not an opportunity to engage. I had an extremely positive experience of this type once while doing pullups in the subway in DC. Someone started counting when I got close to ten, and then everyone started trying to see how many they could do and we became a big exercise encounter group for a few minutes. These encounters happen when the initial action or actor is perceived as welcoming, as having room for involvement and potentially improvement.
It's also interesting that mediating conditions (at least in the real world) are not places. While the Web includes several places like chat rooms that functionally mediate interactions between strangers, there aren't many analogous places in the real world. Even bars, the cornerstone of the pickup scene, tend to primarily attract packs of friends who very occasionally venture ten steps from the pack to talk to a stranger. Creating a place for participation is not enough. To design spaces that encourage participation, you have to find ways to offer users mediating objects, rules, and events, and enough non-uniformity to allow intimate moments to slip through. And the hardest part? You have to do it in a way that feels accidental, surprising, and authentic. Otherwise you just become another guy in a bunny suit, people hurriedly passing by.
What conditions did I miss? What's your story about interacting with strangers?