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Design Goals For Serendipitous Encounters

Building a phone hotline for exchanging messages between strangers, and a summary of my approach moving forward.

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My first phone project: SpeakEasy

This is a project I’m currently testing out, involving sharing voice messages over the phone. Instead of a one-way inbox for gathering responses, SpeakEasy exchanges responses between participants - you’ll receive a randomly selected message when you call in.

In this first iteration, it's gathering responses to the recent inauguration - namely, things people don't want to forget as we get used to the new administration. Try it out by calling 1-231-225-9945.

How this fits into the bigger picture

The broader theme of my fellowship, breaking out of your bubble, can mean many different things to different people. One high-level strategy could involve actively seeking out people who are “different” from you, but I’m reluctant to take this approach because (1) it reinforces an “us vs. them” mentality and (2) requires making value judgements about what “difference” means.

Instead, I’m embracing simple randomness as a way to encounter a wider set of voices. Currently, I’m experimenting with phone call and text messaging projects, with the goal of creating weird, serendipitous encounters between total strangers.

As I’ve been thinking through these phone projects, I’ve landed on some design principles that both clarify and guide my approach.

Design goals

1. Privilege listening over talking

Comment sections and social media are practically shouting chambers, designed primarily for speaking out rather than for listening to others. These types of spaces naturally select for highly opinionated content, while selecting against vulnerability/nuance. I’m looking for new ways to encourage more listening, rather than encouraging confrontation.

2. Foster encounters between random people

Online social networks are mostly seeded with people we know offline; as a result, any new people we encounter online are likely to be similar to us in some way. Meanwhile, the gig economy makes it increasingly common to have encounters with total strangers offline, except these encounters are inherently uneven - one party is serving the other. I’m looking for ways to create fleeting connections between strangers as equals.

3. Humanize strangers

Instead of hearing about groups of people, I’m focusing on ways to hear from people directly - after all, exposure to content isn’t the same as exposure to people. Instead of people down to descriptive statistics and generalizations, I want to draw attention to deeper, difficult-to-quantify facets of identity.

4. Minimize garbage

Whenever strangers connect over technology, there’s a risk for venom and harassment. I’m experimenting with ways to frame projects that minimize garbage from the start, but I’m also going to be cautious - all of my projects will have moderation built in from the get-go.

Many of these design goals run counter to most social media networks, comment sections, and forums; I’m excited to continue translating them into working prototypes.



Open Lab for Journalism, Technology, and the Arts is a workshop in BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau. We offer fellowships to artists and programmers and storytellers to spend a year making new work in a collaborative environment. Read more about the lab or sign up for our newsletter.

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