Making Stronger Ephemeral Connections Through Play

Topic/problem description: Juliet Schor writes that today’s Americans and much of the Western world are more anxious, depressed, unhappy, lonely, and overworked than any generation before them (Schor, n.a.). Rapid economic growth led to an unprecedented wealth gap with profit and productivity at its heart, and an overall focus on the individual. With working conditions in the Western world getting tougher, the rising costs of living, and greater difficulty entering the job market, there isn’t much time for people to connect anymore. The opportunity cost to socialize is rising and we’ve all become too busy for one another.

“If success is a choice then so is failure. Lost your job? You should have worked harder. Sick? You must not be leading a healthy lifestyle.” (Bregman, 2016) This individualistic worldview, while easy to understand, is overly simplified and its negative side effects reinforce a more nefarious idea: that social systems and institutions have no role in our social worlds.

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 civic life can all be attributed to this lack of trust.

Building this trust back is the next step to bringing communities together, and there’s no better teacher than play. We’ve built entire systems, institutions, and traditions around allowing children to learn and grow through play. Recess, playing catch, education systems that are organized by age — things that disappear in adult life. The lack of baked-in play in adult life inhibits social and personal growth, and leaving play up the the individual is unreliable — especially when one out of three individuals work more than 45 hours per week.

With all that said, how might we facilitate more meaningful ephemeral connections through play?

A collection of Soundbites user interface screens.
A collection of Soundbites user interface screens.

Solution: 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.

References:

Bregman, R. (2016). Utopia for Realists. New York, New York: Back Bay Books.
Sachs, Jeffrey. (2020) Smile? The Results From the 2020 World Happiness Report Are In. Retrieved March 15, 2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/world/europe/world-happiness-report.htmlSchor, 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 .