Are there communities right under our noses?

A couple of years ago when I was still at university, I was behind a project called “I was here” which looked at how people interact with public space and the communities within them. To do this I made a bench, set it up every day for a week in a high-traffic location on campus, covered it in a sheet and with pens attached, essentially asked for it to be written all over, vandalised and defaced. And it was.

What you see in the picture above is from the fourth day of this project, where throughout the course of the day people had scrawled messages of love, animosity, pop culture references, internet memes, poems and emoticons. If you’re interested you can see bigger versions and transcripts of the sheets from the other days here on my flickr.

What I like about this project is the way it makes a usually invisible community materialise seemingly out of thin air, and the sort of narrative of interaction left in its wake. For a start, it’s a good gauge for the mental age of the campus, with each sheet invariably a vast documentary expanse of playful giddiness dotted with gnomic tidbits. While the majority of comments are what we’d call ‘immature’ at first glance (insults, pranks, trolling, innuendo etc.), I think this is more a symptom of the inherently rebellious act of defacing public property, basking in an anonymity we normally never exploit, than on the psyche of passersby. Even if it’s invited it still feels like you’re exposing yourself.

And in many ways the people who wrote on these sheets did precisely that. Every scribble, no matter how unnoteworthy, tells a story. And over the week, these small scribbles morphed into plot points on a much larger narrative arc.

This sheet from the first day sets up some key themes which would reappear throughout the week. One of these are the complex webs of interaction you can see in the top left corner, where someone writes a message, a revisionist comes and adds to it or crosses sections out, and others join in to amend it by drawing arrows and underlining. Most times this took the form of objections to religious messages, but there are other, more humorous encounters, for example, debating the sexuality of ‘Will’ and references to Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Humour was definitely used as a bonding mechanism. Bonding to who though, who knows.

By the second and third day there were recurring characters. E+K confessed their love on more than one occasion, a stickman superman appeared falsely claiming ownership for the project and then vanished. A poetic brick graced the bench twice, as did someone who found the art ‘strangely arousing’, and as I later found out one girl was responsible for a large number of illustrations across multiple days (self-dubbed the ‘I think everybody should like everybody‘ girl).

If at the start of the week the bench was a strange piece of art, by the end it had become strangely familiar and trustworthy. Many advertised their websites or societies and clubs. In a sense, the sheets stopped simply recording the thoughts of passersby and came to represent the preexisting campus community as a whole. On top of this, once I revealed my identity, people felt comfortable writing more personal messages and even mobile numbers. In just one week, very real people had identified themselves on a completely impersonal surface.

Yet there’s something inherently deceptive about all this, and that is, for all the apparent humanity captured on these sheets, almost all members of this fractured community are figments of each other’s imagination. It’s impossible to know exactly who wrote each part when – not only for us now, retrospectively, but also for the people at the time. For them, they were communicating with a statement written by someone earlier who could only be imagined, and likewise, who they were writing to was only an imagined counterpart in the yet-to-be-determined future. Despite appearances, at no point do two people directly connect; the only thing which interacts are our ideas of people.

Splitting hairs? Probably. But something which really came home to me when taking this project out is how we cope with understanding others when we’re not in the same place at the same time.

Instinctively we seem to shape presence out of absence, familiarity out of anonymity, but it’s all done client side. A lot of this is explained philosophically and psychologically by a theory of mind; the ability to imagine what another is thinking, and is an important aspect of healthy cognitive development. However, it’s these asymmetric encounters (that push our ability to develop accurate theories of mind) which are increasingly typifying how we interact with each other online and, ironically, are key to conceptualising connectivity today.

Seeing this dynamic in another context (on a bench) is an important step toward realising that the way we ‘connect’ online is only a small part of a larger phenomenon in the paradox of modern connectivity.

So besides benches, what other invisible communities do we unwittingly stumble into and out of on a daily basis? Where else do communities exist stubbornly outside their constituent’s peripheral vision and how could you make that community more visible? What strange interactions have you had which break the anonymity of modern life? Let me know your thoughts on this and more below.



Can you make eye contact over Skype?

Perhaps the creepiest thing I've ever drawn

With video-calling and VoIP services like Skype and FaceTime at all-time high adoption rates among businesses and individuals alike, and being touted as ‘almost as good as being there’, the question of just how good a substitute these services are for genuine face-to-face contact should be asked. So, can you ‘meaningfully connect’ (whatever that means) over Skype? Can you make eye contact or, at the end of the day, are you destined to see pixels first and pupils second?

This isn’t just a philosophical question, it’s primarily a matter of neurology and psychology. Skype definitely has an edge over other traditional means of communication. Unlike letters, telephone calls, text messages and Wall posts, with Skype you can actually see who you’re talking to. Physiologically, this makes all the difference.

For one, a whole plethora of nonverbal cues is made available. Being able to recognise facial expressions, micro-expressions, voice intonation and, to a certain extent, body language enhance the quality of the interaction. What’s more, the mere sight of a friend, and especially of someone you love, triggers a vivid neural recreation of that person (or the idea of that person). Visual information is sent from the eyes to the occipital lobe to the fusiform gyrus, a structure which on top of other things, assigns meaning to images, words and faces. Think face-detection on a digital camera.

How we see faces

From there the message enters the amygdala and excites the limbic system, the emotional core of your brain, triggering remembered behaviours, stimulating blood flow to the heart, hormone secretion and other events in an endocrinological chain reaction. It’s the same reason we feel happy when we go to our favourite childhood playground, or get irritated when we hear a song on the radio which is looped at work (although a different part of the brain is responsible for audio inputs). Even when we know that the screen is not our significant other, we still react like we would in real life.

This TED talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran sums it up nicely, as does this comment from Christof Koch, a prominent researcher in the field (the full paper can be read here):

How is meaning expressed in neural terms? And how does this expression of meaning arise? We suspect (Crick and Koch, 1995c) that meaning derives both from the correlated firing described above (sic.) and from the linkages to related representations. For example, neurons related to a certain face might be connected to ones expressing the name of the person whose face it is, and to others for her voice, memories involving her and so on, in a vast associational network, similar to a dictionary or a relational database. Exactly how this works in detail is unclear.

But despite all this, we can’t help but feel that it’s not quite the same. And we’d be right.

In researching this, I went to where all the cool kids go, reddit, and asked what people thought. I highly recommend reading both posts that I made here and here. Naturally, a prime candidate for this sort of question emerged; people who are in or have been in a long-distance relationship (LDR). For LDR couples, Skype is often the lifeblood of the relationship, a useful substitute for physical presence. People reported feeling ‘comforted’, ‘close’, ‘nice’, instantly happier, but invariably this was paired with words such as ‘distant’, ‘distracted’, ‘teased’, ‘torturous’.

Skype is a double-edged sword for LDR couples; on one hand it’s a special time to connect, on the other it’s a painful reminder of physical absence. It’s like visiting someone in prison behind glass.


Unsurprisingly, no one has yet (as specifically as this) rounded up friends or couples, stuck one of them in an fMRI, had them chat to each other over Skype, measured the levels of dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin (or other neurotransmitters and hormones involved in bonding/love) coursing through their synapses during, and then compared them against a real life rendezvous. Aspects have certainly been addressed, but like most things in this area the research done is scant and piecemeal at best.

That said, some things are clear.

Firstly, taking away the possibility for physical contact inhibits the full potential of the emotional response evoked by the limbic system. When we are touched (affectionately, through hugs, handshakes, handholding etc.) oxytocin is released like pollen from a flower. When we have sex, cortisol levels (a stress-relieving hormone) skyrocket. But when you subtract touch from the equation you’re left with, pardon the phrasing, a neutered experience.

Interestingly this doesn’t seem to be the case for relationships where physical contact is less prominent (friends, business, therapy etc). In fact, remote psychiatry is relatively as effective as face-to-face therapy. It’s still there regardless, but it seems the stronger your tactile history with your Skypee, the bigger that sense of distance.

Can't touch this

Similarly, the absence of smell subtracts an important sensory input. Pheromones and other scents emitted by someone we know trigger powerful memories associated with that person, and that’s something which is difficult to replicate. The neuronal representation of a loved one is always going to fall a few dead pixels short minus smell, or at least be somewhat incomplete. There are other factors too. Low resolutions and slow frame rates make it harder to detect micro-expressions, the blue LED light emitted by most screens may make us feel less calm/warm/fuzzy. All in all, the compromise of the full multi-sensory experience plays a big part in changing the dynamic of the interaction.

This is also asserted by Richard Lannon in “A General Theory Of Love” (thanks to redditor artwooo for the quote):

The limbic brain registers the disorienting loss of attachments as the all-purpose ache of homesickness. Letters and phone calls are a salve on the wound, but insubstantial substitutes for the full-bandwidth sensory experience of nearness to the ones you love. To sustain a living relationship, limbic regulation demands sensory inputs that are rich, vivid and frequent.”

There is some silver lining here though. Use over time can improve our ability to read faces over the net. If you only know someone through the web, that may be preferable to seeing them in person. As mentioned, the less prominent touch is, the less jarring Skype will be. And finally we can look at how LDR couples compensate for this obvious shortcoming. They call daily, five hours at a time, talk each other to sleep and wake up with the other still on the line. Mirroring behaviours, such as contagious yawning is possible, as is going on remote dates to the park via 3G networks. Couples watch movies together by streaming the same thing at the same time, and some even hug their partner’s pillow during a Skype call, just for those hints of scent which add to the feeling of closeness. Would Lannon consider these inputting behaviours as rich, vivid and frequent? What do you think?

When all’s said and done, there’s no substitute for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean what we experience together on Skype is fraudulent, apathetic or superficial. Rather, what we’re left with is a neurochemically watered-down version of genuine face-to-face contact. It’s the same feelings, just a bit weaker, missing a few inputs and typically mixed with other stuff.

As they get better and better, video calling services are increasingly characterised as what it means to ‘connect’ to each other in the digital age. But considering what you’ve read here, is it right to use the word ‘connection’? If we always have something ‘real’ to compare it with, is this really ‘connection’ at all? Originally a black/white issue (connection/disconnection), nowadays the rhetoric surrounding connectivity is increasingly casting it in all shades of gray. Is a discrepancy between ‘contact’ and ‘connection’ beginning to form? Or are we redefining that word retrospectively in light of current technology?

Let me know your thoughts on this below, or anything related for that matter, from more research to your own personal anecdotes.

Thanks for reading,


How do you connect?


For the upcoming weeks, I’ll be writing on this question. Follow-up content will be posted along the same lines, inspired by discussion in the comment section, or even contributed directly by fellow bloggers. I’ll also be going outside myself on a quest to document how people connect in the modern world around me. In essence, this is meant to be a collaborative inquiry into particularly salient issues of the global age, and if it works, I’ll do it again with a different topic. It’s still early days though.

So with that, how do you connect? Write 5 of your favourite ways to connect to the people and the world around you. How do you use the internet to connect with friends, family, or others? Do you have any peculiar habits or ways of connecting online? And lastly, what are you connecting to when you connect with the internet itself?

Leave your thoughts below and I’ll be back tomorrow with an in-depth post on a particular aspect of this question.



Are we really connected?

Are we connected?

With the new year upon us it seems a good time to start this blog, so here goes.

So much of modern life is predicated on a notion that we are all connected, all the time. It’s pretty easy to feel this way too, in fact it’s almost unavoidable.

But this blog is set up to question, if not dispel that idea. In fact a lot of things make a lot more sense when you flip it around. Now more than ever before, people are living on many different globes. Societies and countries seem violently polarised. Divisions are clear cut from afar, but made up of even smaller divisions up close. Face-to-face contact seems to be a precious commodity. And yet despite all this, there’s a disproportionate emphasis placed on the overarching idea that we are all connected. Or is there?

When we take a step back from our screens, is the global age really that different? Is it really more connected or less? Or the same?

This blog is a space for thinking differently (even dangerously) about people and culture in the ‘global’ age. It’s a space to tell your stories, offer your perspectives, and get a glimpse into other people’s worlds, because after all, behind every person is a human.

At the end of it, this blog hopes to get to the bottom of just how truly connected we really are, and hopefully, genuinely, find a way of talking about connectivity which reflects our world in a more meaningful way.

But what do you think? Leave your thoughts below or discuss other’s (I’ll try incorporate some ideas in the next post). Write a blog in response and I’ll gladly reblog it. Or just introduce yourself. Let’s start connecting.



PS: Happy new year!