Based in Berkeley, CA, Imperfectly Coherent is a blog by Krista Schnell. Her posts span her interests, with a focus on sociology--her main interest, which spans everything.

Familiar Strangers

What does intimacy between “strangers” look like? How can feelings of intimacy be created (or fail to be created)?

Several years ago, I played the videogame “Journey.” In online mode, you are paired with one other person as you move through the game (if the player leaves, you will be paired with another). While you do not have to interact with the other player, you will be aware of her presence; if she’s not actually in view, you will see a glow on the side of the screen, hinting at where she is relative to you. However, there are some benefits to interacting with the other person (such as additional powers when the two of you touch). In my experience, I allowed myself to be led through the level by the other player. The players are indistinguishable, except that this player had all white robes--which I later found out meant that she had played through the game so many times that she had gotten all of the “level-ups,” and was therefore an expert. She clearly led me through the game, leading me away from dangers, and waiting for me whenever I fell behind. The only mode of communication between us was “pings.” I would press a button on my controller, which sent out a glow and a ping sound, and she could do so back; that’s the only way to communicate.

By the end of my time with this player (she left the game), I found myself “falling in love.” Well, the feelings were not truly of love, but I was fascinated by this character. I was thankful and in awe, and I felt connected with her. However, there was another part of me that knew I did not know this person at all. For all I know, she could be a twelve-year old boy, or a sixty-year old grandmother. In fact, I may very well not like this person in real life. While a part of me wanted to know who this other person was, more of me did not want to know. I preferred our ephemeral, anonymous intimacy.

This feeling of being very distant yet close seems similar to the concept of “familiar strangers.” Initially, it had to do with urban anonymity, as written about by Stanley Milgram in his paper “The Familiar Stranger, An aspect of urban anonymity,” and this concept is now being extended to social networks. However, I am most interested in how these feelings of intimacy are created, and how ephemerality and anonymity may actually increase the strength of the weakest ties between two complete strangers (Granovetter, 1973).

I propose to make a mobile application to further explore this topic. Currently, I see the app working in the following way:

  1. User signs up (minimal information is collected to ensure privacy)
  2. User is randomly paired with exactly one other user
  3. Users take turns trading pictures (no text, no photo enhancement, no other functionality other than taking and sending a picture)
  4. One user’s new picture replaces the same user’s old picture
  5. Users trade pictures until one person decides to end the relationship (this can be done at any time)
  6. At the end of the relationship, each user sees the entire collection of pictures. Your favorite 5% of pictures can be saved to your device.
  7. Return to #2

How do these two people interact? How close do they feel? What sorts of pictures do they share? Do they try and share who they are (take selfies, or write messages which they then take a picture of)? Besides just inspecting the data, I could also intersperse short surveys within the application.

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