We're more connected than ever. So why do so many people feel lonely and miserable?
How might we design for more ephemeral and meaningful connections through play?
Western culture permeates much of the industrial world and its effects are taking hold on the young and old alike. Today's generations are more anxious, depressed, unhappy, lonely, and overworked than any before them. The focus on the individual has created stressed that are making connections more difficult to forge. Communities are becoming increasingly secluded and isolated.
We moved too fast and broke too much in the process. Americans are facing "a loss of faith in institutions [which] has dovetailed with the drop in happiness." (Sachs, 2020) Systemic loss of trust and the reinforcement of individualism underpins much of today's anxieties and pressures. Inequality, polarization, and the decline of polarization can all be attributed to this lack of trust.
Building this trust back is the next step in bringing communities together, and there's no better teacher than play.
I started by outlining my assumptions and creating probes to test those assumptions. I wanted to learn more about how to make strangers interact and what's interesting enough to get people to work together.
Assumption tested: how far people were willing to go to satisfy their own curiosity?
I created a riddle and posted it outside the library. It was only a matter of time before it was taken down, but in that time, seven people successfully navigated to the correct location: the campus student run coffee shop!
After interviewing the seven people, I learned that exploration might be a viable method of play.
Assumption tested: would people would use dead time to play an easy game with others?
One out of the two elevators in my building was being serviced, and as such, elevator wait times were lengthy.
In the first few days people were playing together, but mostly with their own friends. Only on a few occasions did people ask strangers to play with them.
After a week of having the activity up, interest faded.
Assumption tested: do people associate stories with found objects?
I collected 30-some-odd wallet-sized objects from classmates and faculty and sorted them into envelopes. I pretended these envelopes were "community wallets," in which people could find.
I interviewed those that found the wallets and I found out there wasn't enough information for them to create their own story from the objects. In addition, they didn't find the objects compelling or interesting.
Assumption tested: what goal do participants find when presented with a puzzle?
I made a set of minigames that required three people to play. I pretended to be a human computer, and depending on the order of their responses, I chose a different game to present them with.
Participants quickly tried to figure out the permutations but were wanting a bigger goal. They did, however, come with with more creative solutions than I could have accounted for.
Assumption tested: what (if anything) do people want to share with strangers?
A simple idea: a box where people could share whatever they wanted with someone they'd never meet. Take one leave one.
This probe overwhelmingly had positive responses. Over 60 people participated in this activity and they left messages of encouragement, stories, and jokes. People had a lot to say and they were more than happy to send their thoughts into the void without expecting anything in return.
I decided to continue iterating on this idea.
I set out to make a bigger physical prototype and deploy it in Philadelphia over spring break, but COVID-19 shut down all non-essential business. I made the shift to a digital prototype.
I knew I wanted a sharing platform of some sort, but I didn't want this platform to become social-media adjacent.
I defined my goals:
I want people to feel like their community is bigger than just the people they interact with on a daily basis.
I want to humanize the community as a whole.
I want people to get to know their geographic locale.
I want people to feel heard and listened to.
I want to promote positivity and togetherness through exploration.
This idea isn't a way to meet new people, its a way to anonymously share with strangers.
After defining my goals, I held a group brainstorming session with friends and family to come up with as many solutions as we could. Pictured is a visualization of the activity I conducted with friends and family.
HOW IT WORKS
Soundbites is a mobile audio log repository that connects social infrastructure to storytelling to encourage communities to communicate and explore their locale. The app is a place to share intimate stories, answer thought-provoking questions, and be heard. Its goal is to strengthen the relationship individuals have with the people they’ll never meet, or as I call it, the social sublime.
Users explore their community’s “monuments”, or parks, trails, city blocks, historic districts, downtowns, etc. and listen to audio logs left by strangers. Much like Pokemon Go, this mobile application anchors its interactive listening to a city monument. Each monument has three daily unique topics in which a recorder can choose to post their answer to, and their posts self delete after 48 hours. Listeners must be within a certain radius to access that specific monument’s audio log database and they can only reply with a badge to acknowledge that an audio log was listened to.
Ludden, D. (2018, January 24). Does Using Social Media Make You Lonely? Retrieved from Psychology Today:
Klinenberg, E. (2019). Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. New York: Penguin Random House.
Schor, J. B. (n.d.). Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today's. In J. B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology .