Listen Socially

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Listen Socially Adam Johnson SUIID 2020

To all the incredible people I’ve met at Syracuse University and those who helped me become the person I am today.

Table of Contents Introduction


Frantic mopping


Social infrastructure


Social systems


The social sublime, gaming & exploration


Thesis statement


Iterations 49 COVID-19 & shifting gears


Last iteration


Meet Soundbites


References 85


When was the last time you stopped and smelled the roses?

Introduction “Never before have so many young adults been seeing a psychiatrist. Never before have there been so many early career burnouts. And we’re popping antidepressants like never before. Time and time again we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. 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) Western culture permeates much of the industrial world and its effects are taking hold on the young and the old alike. Today’s generations are more anxious, depressed, unhappy, lonely (Ludden, 2018) and overworked than any before them (Schor, n.a.). The focus on the individual created stresses that are making connections more difficult to forge. Communities are becoming more secluded and isolated — an entire generation of elders, now dubbed elder orphans, face abandonment without the infrastructure to support them. Games could be the best bet to learn about and create new and sustainable social systems. They’re one of the few systems created specifically for feelings of social bonding, exploration, curiosity, and accomplishment. Ludology, the study of games, has been credited for utilizing aspects of positive psychology formally for decades, but anecdotally for centuries. Games give people the opportunity to be better by teaching pillars of bonding, problem solving, and emotional resilience through one of the most primal and innate parts of the brain: play. By understanding and harnessing elements of game design, more sustainable models of social engagement can be forged. We’re miserable right now, and this is great news. It means we know the system everyone follows is broken and something needs to change.



Frantic mopping


By choosing who we design for, we are making a choice of who isn’t going to be included. By knowing this and ignoring it is also a political act, albeit a cowardly one. Understanding the power in our labor and how we choose to use it defines the type of people we are. — Mike Monteiro


This isn’t an isolated event “In the early 1900s, some psychiatric hospitals gauged patient’s readiness to integrate back into society through a simple and peculiar test. The patient was ushered into a room with the sink, where the hospital staff would place a plug in the sink, turn on the faucet, and wait for the sink to overflow. As water bubbled over the ledge and splashed onto the floor below, the patient was then handed a mop and the staff would leave the room, closing the door behind them. If the patient turned off the water, unplugged the sink, and mopped up the water that had spilled onto the floor, they were deemed as ready to go home and enter back into society. But if the patient opted to frantically mop as the water gushed over the sink, failing to turn off the faucet or remove the sinks plug, they were deemed insane and prescribed more time in the psychiatric hospital: they failed to acknowledge and address the root of the problem.” (Vivianne Castillo, 2019) Though the above test is antiquated, people and companies today are frantically mopping. CEOs of tech companies are making executive decisions about individual’s data privacy, one example of which led to the outing of millions of LGBTQ individuals. Lawmakers have been passing the buck for decades regarding climate change policy, leaving scientists and climate activists sounding the alarm. Collective student debt is higher than all credit card debt combined, not to mention the minimum wage has not increased with inflation, leaving the youth without jobs to pay them a livable wage (Friedman, 2019). People are lonelier, more stressed, anxious and depressed than ever, and it’s easy to see why: our social systems are buckling under the pressure of progress.


How did this happen? Industrialization and capitalism did a great job of giving individuals a reason to break the mold, incentivize innovation, and challenge the status quo, yet it didn’t account for sustainable scale and growth. When competition is fierce, being the best isn’t good enough, companies must battle it out by making the least amount of change possible: outsourcing labor, underpaying employees, and cheaping out on materials to name a few. Minimize costs. Maximize profits. Destroy competition. Much of the early western world operated on this capitalist structure, and it allowed people like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and John Rockerfeller to influence how adolescent nations grew. For example, Carnegie funded the construction of more than 2,500 libraries in just under 50 years (Van Slyck, 1995). Carnegie believed in the sharing of knowledge and the importance of books, and his idea that knowledge should be available to “the working boys” laid the groundwork for today’s public library and knowledge sharing infrastructure. This isn’t to say Carnegie was a perfect and altruistic man, he intended for his libraries to be segregated and he famously broke strikes by promoting inequality between workers. Henry Ford created the five day work week and pioneered the reform of working conditions in the United States — but his reason had nothing to do with employee health or safety, it was so his employees had the time to buy the cars they slaved to assemble. Carnegie and Ford are examples of how those who had money were able to influence how communities changed and grew. This is the philosophy that America grew up on; those who work hard enough can gain influence and make sweeping change. Except that philosophy couldn’t exactly scale with time.


Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for common consumer products, including automobiles. — Henry Ford to World’s Work Magazine in 1926 (India Today, 2017)


Getty Images

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, testifying in front of congress regarding Cambridge Analytica and misinformation during election season: “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”


Private powerhouses Fast forward to today, where the same economic structure exists, and it allows the rich and economically savvy to change how communities and social systems work and innovate. The problem is a business’ bottom line is to their investors and not the individuals for which they provide services. There’s an inherent disconnect between how our economic systems feed into social systems. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are attempting to redefine the way people connect, shop, and communicate respectively. Facebook and Google make the majority of their money on ad revenue, so naturally promoting ads in any way possible would be within the interests of these companies. That means learning as much as they can about individual users. These companies have been the target of controversy as of late and for a good reason: they’re moving too fast and breaking things. Facebook isn’t the only company doing things like this. Amazon ran into some negative press due to low employee wages and unfair working conditions, while the founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the second richest man in the world. Not to mention, Google keeps getting hit with lawsuits left and right. The problem with excessive speed is that intention blurs. Before people know enough about what the effects will be, the harm is already done. Companies like Facebook often operate on “edge cases,” or margins of error for rolling out new features. Yet one percent of their two billion users is twenty million. They’re playing with fire with margins like those. That margin is exactly what led to the outing of millions of LGBTQ individuals. All because someone decided to change Facebook group visibility from “private” to “public.” For companies like these, this is the price of doing business. Though there’s been much critique regarding the ruthless capitalism that accompanied the American Dream, the pathos of it still lives on. The power of the individual still holds stock, and it’s led to a lot of undue pressure.


Self Actualization

Desire to be the best one can be.


Respect, self esteem, status, recognition.

Love & Belonging

Friendship, family, intimacy, connection.

Safety Needs

Employment, public resources, health, property.

Physiological Needs

Air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing.

Maslow’s Hierarchy. A growing rift between “Safety Needs” and “Love & Belonging” is making forging connections more difficult.


Why does it matter? The person who coined the age old saying “money can’t buy happiness” probably never struggled to pay their rent. Sure, money isn’t everything, but it does provide a basis of survival, which 12.3 percent of Americans struggle for, according to U.S. Census Data. When nearly an eighth of the population is fighting for survival, they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to help themselves or others. While working conditions have been getting tougher, costs of living are rising, and the job market more difficult to enter, it’s getting harder to actualize and connect — because the floor of any given community’s social infrastructure is rising. We moved too fast and broke too much in the process. “A loss of faith in institutions has dovetailed with the drop in happiness reported by Americans” (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 (Klinenberg, 2019).


Simply put...


When a community doesn’t trust one another, everything begins to fall apart at the seams.



Social infrastructure


Rishiraj Singh Parmar


What is social infrastructure? Social infrastructure consists of the foundational services a community needs to support their quality of life: healthcare, transportation, education, community support, public spaces, information, safety, recreation, and culture. These are the glue that holds communities together, and it is just as important as public works infrastructure, like water or electricity. Think of your fondest memories. Where did they take place? The park? Downtown? The state fair? The local watering hole? The mall? Church? Your neighborhood’s YMCA? School? When a community’s social infrastructure is robust “it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. Local faceto-face interactions are the building blocks of all public life. People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructure—not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow.” (Klinenberg, 2019)


Why is it important? When people don’t have access to the aforementioned elements, problems arise. For example, if someone can’t afford transportation, or there’s no public transportation options available, it either becomes costly or impossible to get to work, meet new people, go to the doctor, or have any recurring social interaction. Suddenly that person’s social circle shrinks and they see less and less of their community. Now imagine if several of those elements are missing. High medical costs, little to no public spaces, minimal free time, lack of public safety — it’s a snowball effect. People are struggling to afford connections with their community because of high opportunity costs. On top of that, even if an individual has access to the necessary social infrastructure, the paths of least resistance to engaging with others are getting longer. Since time is becoming a more valuable resource as people get busier, it’s easier for connections to come last. Now, one third of Americans work over 45 hours per week, even educators are working close to 55 hours or more — Americans are now working more than the medieval peasant. (Schor, n.a.) What is all this extra time spent working providing?


Happiness, at least as it’s defined in this report, is not a function of how well you express your emotions. Rather, it is a measure of general satisfaction with life and, more important, the confidence that one lives in a place where people take care of one another. — John F. Helliwell, an editor of the World Happiness Report.


The work/life balance A job used to just be a job, but now the new desire is to have a career, or an occupation which takes a significant portion of a person’s life in hopes of opportunity and progress — when in reality most people don’t have their dream job or even a good job that can support the minimum requirements of living and mental health. How did this all happen? Rutger Bregman describes how “for the first time since men were conscripted to fight in WWII…[now] the bulk of the U.S. labor force [was] made up of women.” In 1970, women were contributing only two to six percent of the family income, now the figure has topped 40 percent (Bregman, 2016; Rosin, 2010). Since more women joined the market, it would be expected that everyone would have to work less, but the opposite is true. “Couples worked a combined total of five to six days a week in the 1950’s, nowadays it’s closer to seven or eight.” (Population Reference Bureau, n.d.) Technology allowed us to connect with family but it has also introduced work into home life. The Harvard Business School has “shown that managers and professionals in Europe, Asia, and North America now spend 80 to 90 hours per week either working or monitoring working and remaining accessible.” (Thompson, 2013) Since women joined the workforce in mass, the economic yield is not providing for more time. It’s providing more stuff. To date, no one has found a perfect formula to the “work life balance.” Burnout is now classified as a medical condition (World Health Organization, n.d.). Now employers and employees alike are shifting the focus away from the system and instead to the individual, they’re shifting to focus on grit: strength of character (Quast, 2017). Often, those that succeed do so despite the systems in place.


In under 50 years GDP has grown exponentially but average happiness is on the decline. (Sachs, 2020)


Social infrastructure saves lives Eric Klinenberg along with teams of scientists were dispatched by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze the devastating effects of the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Temperatures reached 106 degrees with the heat index topping out at 126 degrees. Chicago broke its record for energy consumption and the resulting surge knocked out the electrical grid. “Roads and railways buckled, thousands of cars and buses overheated. Children riding school buses to camp got stuck in gridlocked traffic and had to be hosed off by public health crews to avoid heat stroke.” (Klinenberg, 2019) The heat wave took the lives of upwards of 700 people. City morgues didn’t have the space to hold all the bodies. The city never declared a state of emergency. “The first pattern Klinenberg observed was the most predictable, which was that poor or segregated neighborhoods on the South Sides and West Sides of Chicago had the highest death rates by far. But when Klinenberg looked more closely at

The July 17, 1995 Chicago Sun-Times issue reporting hundreds of heat wave deaths.

the patterns, something really puzzling emerged. There were a number of working class [African-American and Latino] neighborhoods that demographically appeared as though they should have fared very badly in the disaster, but actually proved to be strikingly resilient, and even safer than some affluent neighborhoods on the North Side.” (99% Invisible, 2019) 22

Englewood and Auburn Gresham, were demographically identical; they each had roughly the same proportion of old, poor, and African-American residents. They also had high rates of poverty, unemployment, and violent crime. Yet while Englewood was one of the most dangerous places in the heat wave, with 33 deaths per 100,000; Auburn Gresham’s death rate was 3 per 100,000, making it one of the most resilient places in Chicago. The most surprising finding: these two neighborhoods were not separated by miles, they were separated by a single street. Social infrastructure is what Klinenberg says made Auburn Gresham so safe in comparison to Englewood. Auburn Gresham had libraries and community organizations, grocery stores, and cafes that drew people out. “This meant on a daily basis, people got to know each other pretty well and used the social infrastructure to socialize. When the heat wave happened...neighborhood residents knew who was likely to be sick and who should have been outside but wasn’t.” Englewood, on the other hand, was “cursed with empty lots, broken sidewalks, abandoned homes, and shuttered storefronts.” Between 1960 and 1990, Englewood lost 50 percent of its residents and most of its commercial outlets, as well as its social cohesion.” (Klinenberg, 2019) Chicago officials publicly declared that “socially isolated people who died had effectively chosen their own fate, and that the communities they lived in had sealed that fate.” The mayor even condemned people for not looking after their neighbors. Yet, while spending time researching in the neighborhoods, Klinenberg observed something completely different. “Those who lived [in more vulnerable neighborhoods] expressed the same values endorsed by residents of more resilient places, and they made genuine efforts to help one another, in both ordinary and difficult times. The difference was not was the shoddy social infrastructure [which] discouraged interaction and impeded mutual support.” (Klinenberg, 2019)


Broken windows The broken windows theory (McKee, n.d.) is a criminological theory written by James Q. Wilson and Georgy L. Kelling. It states visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create environments that encourage further crime; if someone sees a broken window, they’ll assume no one is organizing the neighborhood. This theory justified years of stop and frisk policing as well as zero tolerance policing. These policies heavily affected the systems of mass incarceration seen in America, especially originating from poor neighborhoods. But, what if instead of sending police to make a community more safe, people just fixed the window?


Tim Arterbury



Social Systems


Individualism A key belief that underpins the way people think about injustice is that people do bad things because they’re bad people. This is an overly simplified and easy to understand model, but the negative side effects of this model are much worse. It reinforces individualistic world views, in which society is reduced to a bunch of individuals making their own choices, in short: people do what they are. “Injustice, then, [in this reductive framework] is a result of the isolated actions of a few bad apples.” (Pop Culture Detective, 2017) This understanding of individualism completely ignores the role social systems and institutions play in the world. Sociology hinges on the axiom that people are always participating in something larger than themselves, often called a social system. They’re “interconnected arrangements, structures, and relationships that combine to form a coherent whole. As individuals of a society, we are always participating in a range of different social systems. For example, the family unit is a social system, as are schools, and police departments, and corporations, and whole societies.” (Pop Culture Detective, 2017) Sexism and racism are also examples of complex and interconnected social systems.


Denys Argyriou


Brian Miller


Games are systems Social systems include rules, or social norms in which all participants are expected to adhere, also known as paths of least resistance. These paths obviously do not determine the behavior of any one individual, and that is why individuals have the power to step off the paths of least resistance and define our own paths. This is where games have the power to shine. Take, for example, the board game Monopoly; it functions as a mini social system. The game includes paths of least resistance, found in the rule book, which shipped with the box. The path of least resistance is to follow the rules and play the game as intended, where any deviation from those rules will cause dissent from other players and may get a player booted from the game. Yet, whenever the rules of the game are followed “an antagonistic pattern of behavior will always emerge — a ruthless greed,” (Pop Culture Detective, 2017) often playfully masked with the guise of friendly competition. If the individualistic lens is applied to the behaviors observed in Monopoly, it leads to only one explanation: people are greedy. The problem with that is most people don’t continue to act in a greedy way when they’re not playing Monopoly. Yes, people can act selfishly or in their own self interest, but Monopoly not only “encourages greedy behavior, the rules make greedy behavior a necessary condition of participation. The personal values of the players are irrelevant to describing the game and its rules. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist monk or a Wall Street banker, if you play Monopoly like it’s meant to be played, you’ll end up acting like an absolute monster.” (Pop Culture Detective, 2017)


So? Real life is no board game, but like board games, people interact subconsciously with social systems. By understanding the elements that go into making a game (or mini social system) it’s possible to understand our own social systems, as such, better outcomes can be forged. Games help to switch the dichotomy from “how can I fit into the system” to “how can the system work for me?”


What if connecting with others was the path of least resistance?



The social sublime, gaming & exploration 35

Jeswin Thomas


The social sublime? Edmund Burke characterized the sublime as “an astonishment in that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case, the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” (Burke, 1756) In other words, when emotions overwhelm rationality, the individual can experience the wonder of creation. Take, for example, Niagara Falls. Millions of people visit the landmark every year (Niagara Falls USA, 2019) to witness its beauty. Niagara Falls is not only beautiful, but the sheer scale of the 3,160 tons of water that flow over the waterfall every second is overwhelming. The waterfall could easily engulf and kill someone. In fact, it has (Lee, 2014). Burke argued the sublime goes a step further than beauty, straight to terror, and the reminder of that power could be exhilarating. Burke says, “When we experience the sublime, we exercise the nerves that could save our lives in a genuinely threatening situation.” (Burke, 1756) Much like the physical world can be sublime, the structures and institutions humans have built can also induce the same sublime feeling, for example: love.


Steve Johnson


Meaning Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure published a book that discussed the relationships between real world objects and language (Crow, 2003). He argued that the relationships between the two are arbitrary and can only be given power when used in relation to each other (Crow, 2003). For example hot and cold, day and night, sharp and round. Later, Jacques Derrida built on Saussure’s theory and added that meaning and language subconsciously organizes people’s lives: “Nothing that is itself by virtue of its being. Nothing stands outside the system of difference, and we must be co-dependent with the other in order to experience the self. There can, therefore, be no such reality as an individual as separate from society, just as there cannot be a societal mass without the presence of individuals. Society provides a mirror through which each individual person may assess [their] own hierarchical position; such comparisons within one’s immediate societal group are a fundamental survival tool.” (Chapman, 2005) Derrida postulated that knowing one’s self is a reflection of their society as much as it is vice versa. We owe who we are to the people we’ve met and the things we’ve interacted with. Michael Stevens believes this philosophy extends to why “we ask [questions]... because it’s fun. Learning is a fun experience, [it] allows us to explore what we like and to show off what we know about it, to show who we are.” (TEDx Talks, 2013) Learning and identity are tied together, one cannot exist without the other. Since play naturally reinforces social bonding, how can we encourage more play and exploration in daily life?


Nick Saeli

Nick Saeli, a Syracuse University alumni notes, “some of my closest friends I met online...I actually got a job through one of my League [of Legends] friends.” (Saeli, 2019) Saeli’s network reaches from the east coast all the way to Hawaii, “The time difference is definitely something, but sometimes we’ll be up until 2am or later to accommodate, he’d do the same for us.”


Gaming and prosocial behavior Openness and proximity are among two of the most influential traits in determining friendships and bonding, games then, proliferate connections. One study finds more than half of all teens have made at least one friend online (Lenhart, 2015) — with nearly a third of that figure having met more than five friends online. The high usage of messaging platforms like Discord and baked-in chat applications like Steam messaging reinforce the notion that games support friendships. Discord even supports entire communities, such as Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit (Game Maker’s Toolkit, 2017), an educational game design community that hosts game jams every year. Though gaming communities have been under fire for causing toxic environments and supposedly causing violent behavior (the latter of which has been proven untrue) (Drummond & Sauer, 2019), there are still elements of the gaming world that are working. Toxic behavior in public chat rooms definitely need to be addressed, but so does the lack of social infrastructure and social sublime in adult life.


It is games that give us something to do when there is nothing to do. We thus call games “past times” and regard them as trifling fillers of the interstices of our lives. But they are much more important than that. They are clues to the future. And their serious cultivation now is perhaps our only salvation. — Bernard Suits, philosopher (Cooper, 1982)


Where games excel While many attempt to find grit through work and “just buckling down,” play provides people with the opportunity to try new things with relative safety — the key being relative safety. Learning to stay optimistic in the face of failure (grit) is an important emotional strength in which games excel, and should be applied to adult life. It’s way too easy to burn out or become frustrated with a nine-to-five (or longer) since the stakes are always high and there is little to no time for mental decompression. Due to the dwindling amount of free time adult Americans have (Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d.), it’s no surprise that adults are playing games. They’re designed for fun and many of their positive psychological effects can be instantaneous. While it can be easy to pass gaming off as an escape mechanism, Jane McGonigal would argue the opposite. Games provide people with challenges and brain teasers that everyday life just doesn’t have to offer — not to mention they provide players with the ability to connect to people across the world. Puzzle mechanics are built into nearly every game. Discord, a chat application for gaming, is one of the most popular desktop and mobile communication applications (Webb, 2018). People aren’t gaming to run away from life, they’re gaming to get what life isn’t giving them.


Something bigger than ourselves “In April 2009, Halo 3 player celebrated a collective spine-tingling milestone: 10 billion kills against their virtual enemy, The Covenant. That’s roughly one and a half times the total number of every man, woman, and child on Earth. To reach this monumental milestone, Halo 3 player spent 565 days fighting the third and final campaign in the fictional Great War, protecting Earth from an alliance of malevolent aliens seeking to destroy the human race. Together, they averaged 17.5 million Covenant kills a day, 730000 kills per hour, 12,000 kills a minute.” (McGonigal, 2011) This milestone didn’t happen on accident, it was an intentional and concerted effort on the player’s behalf. Players flooded message boards with tips and strategies to help other players rack up more kills. Though this accomplishment might not be real life, the effects of it are. Gaming is becoming more of a prosocial activity, and less solitary. The amount of effort and time players put into this cause is truly monumental. An entire community came together in support of each other to achieve something bigger than themselves. Gamers also helped solve a “molecular puzzle that baffled scientists for over ten years” (Boyle, 2011) in under six months. Folding@home was an app developed for Playstation 3 users that enabled researchers to distribute computing power through any player’s Playstation 3, to compute how proteins fold. In under six months, the combined processing power reached a petaflop, or one quadrillion floating point operations per second — this is an enormous amount of computing power, and the researchers owed the breakthrough to the same social infrastructure that enabled concerted multiplayer efforts to kill ten billion Covenant.


Halo Waypoint

Contexts like these provide opportunities for individuals to become a part of something bigger than themselves and potentially experience the social sublime. While these moments are few and far between, the social systems in play for adults today do not provide the social sublime at a consistent enough rate to experience these immense feelings of connection to their community. Despite all the negative press gamers might receive, they still recognize the connection they have to strangers and the perceived responsibility they have to their gaming community. This is the exact same reason esports are blowing up world-wide.


Thesis statement:


How might we facilitate more meaningful ephemeral connections through play?





Probe number one Assumption to test: How far are people willing to go to satisfy curiosity for a reward? Alongside communications designer and riddle connoisseur, Abi Gaudreau, I created a riddle that would hopefully lead readers to the campus student run coffee shop: People’s Place. I designed and 3D printed a few tokens (pictured right) as a prize for those that solved the riddle, and worked with the coffee shop to let winners get a free small coffee when they mention the riddle. I quickly printed and assembled a lawn sign then posted it outside the library, fully expecting it to be taken down in under a day. In the first two hours, of the sign being posted, seven people successfully navigated to the correct location. Over the next day, a few more people solved the riddle but refused the tokens. The sign was taken down after a day and a half. I interviewed a few riddle-solvers and I learned a few things that I could take into my next probe: 1.

Exploration might be a viable method of play.


Three quarters of participants that solved the riddle did so because they had free time between classes.



Most of them enjoyed not knowing what the reward was.

Left: Solve this riddle and win a prize, Follow your nose and not your eyes, 1971 was an important date, In a Place that is holy with many faiths. As students we know school is tough, Come to this Place for a pick-me-up. Right: I modeled and printed a few of People’ Place’s logo and a few versions of latte shapes.


My tic-tac-toe probe to the right of the main elevator.


Probe number two Assumption to test: Would people use dead time to play a short game with strangers? One of the two elevators in my building, the Warehouse, needed to be serviced. As such, elevator wait times were astronomical. I saw this as an opportunity to get people engaged with one another. The Warehouse is a little like a layered cake. Each floor holds a single major and they don’t tend to interact with one another unless necessary. To gently challenge this, I created a competitive tic-tac-toe board outside the ground floor elevator. There were six boards to play on, each pitting one floor against another. Key takeaways from this probe: 1.

Participants ended up playing with strangers, but most of the time played with friends.


The placement of the poster was too high for some participants to reach.


Staff and faculty rarely played.


After two weeks, people stopped playing.


Probe number three Assumption to test: Can people fabricate stories from found objects? After the last test, I really wanted to hone in on making users engaged with strangers. After more research, I found myself interested in developing more probes that encouraged exploration. Probe three was if a lost wallet met geocaching. The idea was “what if you found a lost wallet, but that wallet was filled with memorabilia of the people who used it before you?” I collected wallet-sized tchotchkes from students and faculty and sorted them between five envelopes, each with their own descriptive text. The text on each of these envelopes proposed different ways this wallet system could work. One said to return the wallet to where the user found it, another said to bring the wallet to the local library for a reward. All that said, this probe was a huge flop. After interviews, the key takeaways from this probe are as follows: 1.

Participants found very little interest in the envelope’s contents.


Participants were mostly confused and said they wouldn’t feel compelled to return the wallets.


Participants thoroughly enjoyed creating and sharing their wallet-sized tchotchkes for the probe.



I learned that people keep eclectic and personal objecst in their wallets.


Probe number four Assumption to test: Will people work together towards a common goal when none is presented? After probe three I had a much better idea of what I wanted my final iteration to look like. It had to have some elements of exploration while also having a new element to it every few days. For probe four, I pretended to be a robot. I placed six buttons on a table with a card that read “this station requires three people.” Depending on the order they pressed these “buttons,” I would give them a new minigame to play (pictured right). People caught onto the rules quickly and this probe went so much better than the last. The key takeaways from this probe are as follows: 1.

When participants pressed the same game for a second time, they came up with more creative solutions to the games I presented them.


Participants were more than happy to find extra people to help them learn more about my station.


When they found out there was no overarching goal other than these minigames, they were a little disappointed.


Participants having fun at my station were seen by others and waited in a line to see what it was about.


Top: One of the participant groups that were attempting to figure out the button. Left: The “buttons� that participants would interact with to trigger a minigame. Right: A few of the minigames participants would be presented with.


Top: A participant filling out a slip of paper with their own message. Left: The instructions left for participants to read. Right: The Pay it Forward Machine before deployment.


Probe number five Assumption to test: What (if anything) do people want to share with strangers? I knew I wanted to take the element of sharing from probe three and combine it with the “work together” idea of probe four. I grabbed a small cardboard box, wrapped it in butcher paper, and decorated it. What resulted I called “The Pay it Forward Machine.” Participants could anonymously write any message on a small sheet of paper or take one from the box. I left this probe in the library for two days. I was worried people might abuse the rules, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. In the end, over 60 people participated. The key takeaways from this probe are as follows: 1.

Participants created an abundance of positive messages. Not a single message was mean.


Many passers-by stopped to inspect the box. There might be something to introducing a new element to an environment.


People shared stories, positive aphorisms, secrets, and even drawings. Participants found a way to make the message their own.



COVID-19 & shifting gears


This idea that we’re all in this together. That’s really being tested. We’re going to have to find that common sense of shared responsibility to pull through the crisis. — Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network


Upside down Not too long after my fifth probe, news of the coronavirus made it to the United States. Students and faculty alike wondered if we’d be coming back to school after spring break and as such confusion proliferated. Professors began prepping for the worst and students were instructed to start clearing off their desks in studio. A few people even said goodbye in case we didn’t come back. I had big plans to deploy a higher fidelity physical kiosk over spring break, but over break, the first mass closures began. Classes made the move online. After talking with professors, it looked like I would have to shift to a digital final deliverable, rather than a physical kiosk.


You positively affect environment

Environment positively affects you

We create the environments around us to be useful to ourselves others. In doing so, the environment positively affects others and yourself. This feedback loop is essential to understanding the kind of creative work individuals need to engage with.


Silver linings Though shifting gears proved difficult, there was some good news regarding my thesis work: this global pandemic validated the ideas I explored in my research, that without the pressures of daily life, people seek out connection. Despite friends and family being hundreds or thousands of miles apart, I’ve found that friends have been reaching out more. Now that we have more time to ourselves, we’re talking more. I’m seeing more people going for walks six feet apart in the parks. The pandemic has highlighted what we value: each other. Nations are coming to the aid of other nations. Communities are coming together to support each other. All this extra time spent indoors is being used to connect and reflect. All the above had me thinking about the feedback loop that keeps people engaged with their surroundings.


Sketches to figure out how to turn my physical service into a digital service/experience.


Shifting gears I distilled my kiosk idea into a list of outcomes and I had to figure out how to turn that into an interactive service. I’ve boiled it down to “exploratory storytelling.” I really want people to engage with their communities in both the geographic and interpersonal senses. The defined goals are as follows: 1.

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.

The running idea I had was Pokemon Go meets geocaching meets audio logs.


Top: Testers selected one item from each column and talked about how they imagine the app might function. Right: A tester working through an InVision prototype.


User testing I worked with eight testers to determine how they thought the application might behave. I held an online activity through Zoom where they arranged their own storyboard and user journey in a few different ways. They talked about their choices as they made them and many testers brought up concerns I hadn’t considered: 1.

Who decides where these monuments are?


How do you control where people go? What if its a bad part of town?


How do businesses factor into this app?


What if you have a distinct voice?


What if you’re deaf or hard of hearing?


What if I really like a post and I want to share it?



Last iteration



Meet Soundbites An interactive community audio log database.


How does it work? 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.


A user taking a stroll through a park while exploring what monuments are near them. Users are able to sort by what tags they want to explore.


Opening tutorial When users first download this mobile application, they’ll be greeted with this set of tutorial screens that explains how to use the app.



Choosing a topic When a monument is selected, users can tap the create post icon in the bottom center of the screen and choose from two unique monument topics, or tell their own story.


Recording and uploading The app then brings them to a recording screen, and after the user complete’s their story, they can title, tag, and designate the language of their post. Users also have the option to mask their voice. 79

Finding audio logs Users can click on a monument, represented by a pin, and this screen will swipe up. On the lefthand side, time remaining is shown for each audio log before it disappears from the public forever. Users are able to access their own old audio log posts, however. 80

Listening and replying Once a user selects a post to listen to, the page slides left to reveal the post information. Listeners can listen to the audio log as well as read a transcription if audio is not an option. Users reply by pressing the large green button in the bottom right of the audio log screen and are only able to reply by sending a badge. These badges can be “collected� by the reciever and sent out in response to other audio logs.


Reporting Though, most people will play by the rules, some wont. A user reporting feature can be found in the bottom left of each audio log post in case the poster didn’t follow the rules.


A user accessing the Canal Street Station monument page and browsing the audio logs.

A user uploading their own story while out and about in a skate park.


Service Blueprint St akeholder


Ph y sical Evidence

Aw areness

Firs t Encou n ter

Info inqui r y

Fro n t -St a ge Ch annels

Ba c k-St a ge Roles

s et up orie n ta tion

St a r t at te

Selecting one o three recordi options from “record” me

Audio is intimate and could discourage bad behavior Hearing about the application from friends or users

User Ac tion

a cquiring mater ials

user decisions

Advertisements or badge collecting seen


Ph y sical Evidence

Orie n ta tion

“Sounds interesting, I’ll check it out”

Downloading and installing the mobile application

Creating an account

Having the mobile application tell them the rules

User selects the language(s) they want to record/listen to. Editable in settings

Navigates to a “monument” or to gain acces recordings


Webs ite pl atform

Mobile Applic ation

Inform users about the mobile application

Inform users about the mobile application

Tutorial and walkthrough sequence

Potential promo on iOS and Android app stores

Human Suppo r t Create a list of daily story and question topics unique to each monument

3rd Pa r ties

Funding Source

Mark eting Team

Design and Produ c tion

Accou n t s Oppo r tun it y

Question or Problem


Work with local parks and rec/community to select “monuments”

Creates hundreds of badges for users to collect

Fully encrypted accounts are utilized on the back end

App added to iOS and android app stores

Account created to keep track of audio logs, stickers, and enforce rules.

Pair with businesses or community outreach to promote areas of interest?

Business Deve l opme n t

Pa r tnership

Potential promo on iOS and Android app stores

Creates a website

Local city government or private businesses

3rd Pa r t y oper ations

Designated “monuments” are selected and seen

Funding Source

Allow local/private businesses to tell about history in different section of app to promote self

Des “monum selected

Allowing businesses to use app as an ad platform could be problematic and detract from stories and trust of app

Firs t At temp t


t firs t emp t

Compl ete at temp t

l ution

Pri v a cy concerns

a ccessabil

Withdr a w al?

it y

bad beh a vior

Option t o Termi n ate

Co n tin uation/A dv oc a cy

Co n tinuing

Daily prompt, daily story, share anything for a short time

of the ing the enu

Recording their own response to the prompt

Tag their audio, and give it a title, then press “upload”

Collect badge that listener “replies” with.

Their voice is too unique to want to record

Don’t want to keep posting to the same “monument” area for location privacy

User is hard of hearing or wants a written transcript

User wants anew tag to be applied to the posting

Likes to share about themselves User encounters inappropriate audio log or misuse of the service

town r park ss to s

Selects the “listen” tab and is able to select logs based on the titles

User is able to save recordings for a short time for later before they disappear

Wants to learn about their local spots

Option to uninstall the mobile application with feedback

“Reply” by sending a single badge. Users have randomzed badges for variety and sharing

Mobile application uses location data to determine proximity to “monument”

Want to hear answers to next days prompts

Invested in stories from their community

Recorded and saved logs autodelete after 48 hours

Voice augmentation option in the post settings

Option to transcribe audio logs in the post options

Feeling of importance and validation

User reports the audio log

Provide opportunity to let users translate and share different languages? Support can access log history from accounts and determine disciplinary action

Audio log history kept for accountability, but will be deleted from the “monument” location

Warning, account suspension or deletion

Location data is saved to a user’s account and is not shared with 3rd parties

Businesses utilizing the same service meant for individuals could devalue the individual and change focus of the app

Partnership with local government to promote community events

Parades, holiday festivals, barbeques, contests, theaters, concerts, art installations

signated ments” are d and seen

Funding from parks and rec department?

This blueprint outlines how the service works and which elements interact with which hypothetical development teams.





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