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The Stranger Aversion

Social media has created a world in which everyone is interconnected. Forget six degrees of separation; we’re probably down to three. So have we completely lost the notion of a stranger?

Charlie O’Donnell, CEO of Path 101, recently wrote a post on his personal blog about the shift towards using social systems to connect with pre-existing friends and away from using them as a means to connect with strangers. He contrasts the rather closed networks on Facebook with the open chat rooms of AOL.

The topic struck a chord with me and I was compelled to write a rather lengthy comment. I wanted to re-post it here because I’m curious to hear the perspectives of some user experience folks that I know aren’t reading Charlie’s blog (they should).

Maybe I was one of those people you were talking to in AOL chat rooms late at night. I got my first Mac in the 5th grade (age 10) and had my own phone line. I would log on when I got home from school and would be up past 2 AM most nights chatting to perfect strangers.

Fifteen years later, the only strangers I talk to online are on Twitter. And they’re not perfect strangers either, they’re friends of friends that I just haven’t met yet.

My AOL profile said a lot about who I am — my age/sex/location, where I grew up, my favorite movies/books/TV shows, hobbies, activities. Sure, pretty similar information to a Facebook profile. But what it didn’t include was: my name, my photo, my phone number, where I went to school, or any other truly personally identifiable information. There was absolutely no way I could be found. It felt safe.

Talking to strangers online during the most impressionable years of my life no doubt contributed to the person I am today. Particularly as an only child with two working parents. But had my friends been computer nerds like me with AOL accounts and private telephone lines, chances are I would have been up late every night talking to them — not to some 40-year-old weirdo in Minnesota.

What was really happening was that I was craving connection. Attention. I had to get it from anywhere I could find, and there was a box on my computerdesk that I could sit in front of and play a never-ending game of what-will-happen-next. Better than a TV show or a book, I was a player. I could affect the outcome. And it felt powerful and electrifying.

Now that virtually everyone we know in the real world is online, the need to seek out strangers isn’t as great. Between email, our buddy lists, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Flickr, etc… we’re always communicating, always sharing, and that thirst for connection is consistently quenched.

But sometimes, every now and then, the hankering for a stranger is still there.

Is the answer simply that now that everyone we know is online there’s no need to connect with a stranger? How has our design of social systems encouraged this insular behavior? Was there research that led us to believe that there was greater value in “meeting” and communicating with people in our real-life circles in the online space? Does our regard of strangers as unsafe dissuade the more cautious among us from embracing social media and thus there was a significant need to design systems around pre-existing social networks in order to tip (as Malcolm Gladwell would put it)? Are strangers dangerous entities that we need to protect our users from? And what are the use cases in which connecting with a stranger is actually beneficial?

Let me take a step back and ask: What is a stranger exactly? According to Dictionary.com, a stranger is a person with whom one has had no personal acquaintance; a newcomer in a place or locality; an outsider. When someone I don’t know sends me a friend request on Facebook, I assume they are a stranger to me. But then I can look at our mutual friends and soon I find that they are not “out of place” or unknown at all — I just haven’t met them yet. In the new web world, you’re strange when you aren’t connected, can’t be Googled, don’t have a LinkedIn page, aren’t revealing information about yourself/your career/your interests all over the damn place. That’s when people start to get suspicious.

People who don’t really know each other and could likely never meet are communicating constantly on Twitter. But there’s a certain commonality there, whether it be common acquaintances or interests or professions. And also, people are projecting outward in a very public way that somehow diminishes the uncertainty and fear and mystery that surrounds a perfect stranger. There’s a certain level of accountability there — liability.

It strikes me that dating sites might be the very last place where strangers are actively seeking each other out. I lump Craigslist into the mix, with its Missed Connections and Rooms & Shares postings.

Still, the underlying intention is to someday meet IRL. Are there places on the web that strangers connect for connection sake, wanting to remain anonymous and have an open communication with someone they needn’t worry about accommodating in their real life — a sort of sanctuary? Has negative press and some God awful criminal situations (albeit outliers) permanently shifted our focus to supporting and strengthening existing relationships?

Ultimately, what is the cause of the stranger aversion and is there anything we can do as user experience designers to create safe environments to harness the power of sharing between the unacquainted, never-to-be-acquainted?

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  • http://www.informationarchitect.ca Mario Bourque

    Whitney, you inspire me with your perception of the world, and your observations of how we all interact within it. You are aware of who you are and your place within this world, and you are definitely more “aware” than most people I know. What makes you interesting are the things you are interested in.

    The online world gives us access to this enormous knowledge base of experience we can tap into, not only for what we do professionally, but for personal issues as well. It’s less effort than getting out of bed, jumping into your car, going over to your friend’s house, and doing whatever that you would be doing.

    Maybe, we’re lazy, it’s less effort, or just that these people that we have distant online relationships with fill the need we can’t get from some of our closest personal relationships.

    I don’t know if we can do anything to create a safe environment, but we can create safer environments. Having worked in the biometric industry, I’ve learned that nothing is “fool-proof”. There is always an unaccounted variable that can throw everything off, and humans are unpredictable.

    For now, my thirst for connection has been quenched.

  • http://dayofideas.com sedgewick

    I have it in my attention to dedicate some energy joining in on this conversation in the coming week. For now – for me, it has been the opposite… I mean the emotional feel is the opposite.

    I, like you, grew up as an anonymous online adolescent.. trolling the internet for interaction with the unknown; often having a blast creating entire fictional characters to personify and cultivate in chat rooms.

    In the past year.. strangers I met in my late teens under fake ‘handles’ have become facebook friends.. we have emerged, gradually, from the darkness and shadows of the anonymous internet to stand confident in new authentic, transparent, trusting embodiments of our more-and-more-whole real-world avatars.

    Through the whole process though.. I know that I cultivated a vocabulary of expressing and discovering my true internal self with strangers, I gained confidence in that vocabulary, so that I could bring it back to my real-world relationships (my known contacts).

    I’m running on.

  • Kelly Murdoch-Kitt

    First of all, I can’t believe more people haven’t commented on this post. Certainly it’s something that everyone who reads blogs has dealt with or considered. Anyway, I wanted to leave some feedback per an earlier email conversation with Whitney about an academic paper I’m writing on a similar topic:

    It’s funny, you referenced Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point in [this] post about strangers; in my paper I am also citing his book, Blink, to describe the process of assessing virtual contacts as potential friends. […] Blink discusses the “adaptive unconscious,” and how we rely on subtle cues and clues to formulate quick conclusions (“gut reactions”) about things. In my experience, this theory definitely applies to assessing genuineness in virtual folks. One of the points Gladwell makes is that we have been culturally conditioned not to trust this instinct, so we’ve trained ourselves away from it in many ways—society tells us to take our time, find more facts. But I think if one is tuned into it, (in my experience, anyway), it acts as a pretty good barometer for evaluating online personalities.

    I have met countless “virtual people” face to face, and I have rarely encountered gross misrepresentation. I think that’s because I shy away from people I perceive as not being genuine, but it is probably also due to the fact that people who misrepresent themselves know it and usually aren’t interested in meeting in person. But I’m also an optimist, so while I know that there are definitely a few wing-nuts out there who enjoy pretending to be someone they’re not, I believe the majority of people are probably, like you and me, just interested in engaging with others in a fun, social and (sometimes) productive way. The problem is that the creeps get all the media attention—which I discuss in my section on stereotypes and stigma regarding online encounters.

    Additionally, I’d like to add that yes, while more and more people who we already know are now (finally!) online—making ‘friendship/contact management’ communities like Facebook and LinkedIn relevant and worthwhile—the influx of public internet use in recent years also means that there are that many more people available online who we don’t yet know. Which means that there are that many more possibilities for connecting with new people. Services like Twitter give me faith that dating and romance-focused sites and communities aren’t the last outposts for meeting new people. The safety net of friend references and referrals afforded by sites like Facebook is comforting, yes, but the prospect of chance interactions and new relationships with those previously unknown to us is still exciting, and potentially rewarding.

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  • http://www.philoking.com/ Jason Burns

    It's very interesting and I am kind of surprised I did not notice the incredible shrinkage of scope of my online world. I still communicate with people all over the world like I did in the early 90s via IRC and later Yahoo Chat, etc. But now it's in pockets, and with people I do feel I know pretty well (most of whom I actually know) With my friends and family finding their way onto Facebook I do communicate with known people much, much more.

    What I do find extremely interesting, is that now that the lines of communication are wide open, and the groups and stigmas associated with childhood and especially high school aren't constraints, the people I grew up with that I communicate with now, are not the ones I really hung out with then. People's interests have matured, and I maintain friendships with several people I don't think I ever spoke with at length in High School. At the same time, several I would have consider the closest of friends, I don't speak with at all, even though they are just as available.

    Twitter has become very interesting as it seems friendships are made very fast though such short messages, very little real-time communication, the last conference I went to I ran into a half dozen twitter contacts and we were fast friends as if we had chatted late into the hours about the minute details of our lives. Talk about compression….interesting thoughts, great article.