It’s all about you, isn’t it? In our me-monster society, social media — whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, LinkedIn, the aptly named About.me — is the story of You written and directed by You.
A new app in development called 20 Day Stranger wants to turn that notion on its head. It pairs you anonymously with another person on the other side of the world for 20 days. The hope is that you’ll get just enough information to imagine another person’s life and perhaps even care about that human without ever becoming friends.
“Rather than strengthen existing connections,” said Kevin Slavin, assistant professor at MIT and director of Playful Systems, “we want to allow for a different sense of connectedness to a wider world.” Slavin developed the app in a collaboration with MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.
With this app, neither participant receives any specific information about the other. No name, no address, no serial numbers. You never see a face.
You do, however, receive alerts via the app that inform you when your stranger-friend has awakened, what the weather is like in the city where the person lives and your stranger-friend gets the same. You’ll receive an alert when the person begins walking or driving somewhere and in fact, the app works with Google Maps, Instagram and Foursquare to provide some information about “where,” although it keeps the details vague. For example, if your friend is walking down Beacon Street in Boston, the app will pull random images from Google Maps that have been taken in the general area, giving you a sense of the neighborhood.
If your friend arrives at a Dunkin Donuts, the 20 Day Stranger app will only tell you that the person has arrived at a coffee shop. It may show a random image from Instagram of a coffee mug. When your friend arrives at his or her job, for example at MIT, the app will alert you that your stranger is at a university.
This goes on for 20 days and at the end of the pairing, you can send each other one message.
“Twenty days was deliberate,” said Slavin. It’s enough to begin to get a sense of the person’s rhythms, but it’s also a short-enough amount of time to understand that the connection is precious, he said. “So you have to pay attention.”
Right now the app is in the beta stage and Slavin admits it’s buggy. They made a conscious decision to not save any of the data, which makes development “ten times more difficult” than other apps, he said. But right now, they’re soliciting applications to test the app with 1,000 people. Once they run the 20-day cycle, they'll put it in Apple’s App Store and also work on developing it for Android phones with the goal of getting another 10,000 people on board.
With 20 Days a Stranger, someone can participate anonymously in your life for a brief period of time.
“You won’t have to control your message; you won’t have to spin it,” said Slavin. “The only story you’ll tell is what someone else will imagine.”