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Just Walk on By

November 18, 2010

Maybe money can’t buy happiness. But can it buy friendliness?

Columbia University is hoping it can. The Office of Residential Programs at the university, sensing that its campus had grown too introverted, this week has tried to encourage casual interactions among students with a game, called “The Social Experiment,” aimed at getting campus strangers to talk to each other. The winner gets $500.

Here’s how it works: Each day of the week all students on campus are given a random word as a prompt. A subset of students is assigned to keep one of several passwords, which they disclose to any student who addresses them with the prompt word. At the end of the week, the person who has collected the most passwords wins the cash. The idea is that in the process of foraging for passwords, seekers will be forced to interact with fellow students whom they do not know.

Some media reports have framed the experiment as an attempt to counteract a mobile media culture in which a student walking across campus is more likely to be buried in her Blackberry than poised to greet passers-by. Others have simply implied that Columbia students avoid casual cordiality, Blackberries or no. Since Columbia’s media relations office declined, without explanation, to comment, provide any literature, or arrange interviews with the residential officers behind the experiment, Inside Higher Ed was unable to find out the official rationale — or how much traffic there has been on the website where players redeem collected passwords.

In any case, Columbia’s experiment has produced some chatter, though not necessarily the sort the residential programmers were hoping for. In an op-ed for the Columbia Spectator entitled “Why the ‘Social Experiment’ will fail miserably,” two students scoffed at the idea that the scavenger hunt would produce meaningful exchanges among strangers. “It is certainly a noble goal to get students to better interact with one another,” they wrote, “but when you attach a $500 prize to a game whose winner must inherently be a systematic, blunt, and tactless maniac, the purpose becomes lost.” (The Spectator also ran an op-ed praising the experiment.)

The contest was also mocked lightly by The New York Times’ City Room blog and New York Magazine’s Daily Intel blog, and less lightly by the sardonic IvyGate blog. (The latter on Tuesday reported that a Facebook status update by a Columbia student suggests that some are playing the game with an ironic disregard for its intent: “Good job Res Life,” the update reportedly read, “‘The Social Experiment’…[is] a huge failure because everybody just texts/emails/facebooks the passwords.”) Even the editors at the Harvard University Crimson weighed in, writing that “the requisite prize money for The Social Experiment would be better spent on open, inter-dorm events, such as study breaks or ice cream socials.”

But despite the ribbing Columbia has gotten over its Social Experiment, its critics have by and large agreed that the university’s residential programmers have a point about how mobile technology has enabled students to retreat into their existing social networks at times when they otherwise might serendipitously add to them through face-to-face contact with strangers.

“Walking around Columbia is like stepping into that Microsoft commercial where a doctor stares at his phone in the middle of surgery and a bride, walking down the aisle, sends a text,” wrote New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser on Monday. “It’s a place where everyone, from freshmen to grad student, bangs into one another unawares, noses pasted into smartphones like oxygen tents.” In its otherwise oppositional editorial, the Harvard Crimson editors offered that “it is refreshing to see a college social initiative that does not depend solely on virtual interaction.”

The Mobile Effect

Sophisticated mobile devices are becoming ubiquitous on college campuses. According to recent data from the Educause Center for Applied Research, about 63 percent of students own Internet-enabled mobile devices, and another 11 percent plan to purchase one within the year. While some have touted the devices as a potential boon for field research and a vehicle for all sorts of useful, campus-based apps for students, a number of professors have fretted about trying to teach perpetually distracted students — especially when their ability to connect to the Internet cannot be shut off by network administrators.

In Columbia’s case, some commentators have suggested that any perceived unfriendliness might be an effect of the university’s urban setting, where the gantlet of city life might condition students to retreat inward while in public. But even rural campuses, including those that pride themselves on a culture of sociability, have had to contend in recent years with the threat posed by mobile devices.

Dawn Watkins, dean of students at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia (pop. 6,867 at the 2000 census), says the long-held “speaking tradition” at that university — where students are expected to say hello when they pass one another on campus — has had to adapt to the new normal of students using time walking across campus to make calls or send texts. Watkins said that a student in a student newspaper article proposed the “cell phone nod” as a corollary to the speaking tradition. “It’s a way of keeping speaking tradition going while simultaneously doing mobile technology,” Watkins said. (Purists take heart: The "cell phone nod" is not necessarily an accepted alternative.)

At the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee (pop. 2,361 as of the 2000 census) the “Passing Hello” has been institutionalized as one of the university’s most cherished traditions. And yet, several years ago students noticed that cell phone use was undermining that tradition, said Eric Hartman, the dean of students there. At the time, Sewanee was considering an expansion, and a student had printed bumper stickers that said “Save Sewanee!” Though not its original intent, the slogan evolved into a rebuke that students would direct at classmates who pulled out a cell phone in a social setting around campus, Hartman says.

In another instance, a Sewanee student, pretending to be a dean, sent out a campuswide e-mail urging students to “keep it in their pants.” Their cell phones, that is.

Both Watkins and Hartman pointed out that the counter-movement to preserve friendliness and sociability on their campuses had started with students. Same with campuswide contests that might indirectly lead to interactions among strangers, such as Humans vs. Zombies — a game started by students at Goucher College in 2005 that has now gone viral on campuses across the country. Attempts to influence social behavior from the top down, the deans said, probably have a lower likelihood of success.

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, which shares an urban setting with Columbia, says that the sight of students traversing campus glued to their mobile devices rather than offering hearty salutations to other walkers is not the symptom of social illness. Text-messaging with a friend, he says, is likely to be a more meaningful social experience than exchanging pleasantries with a stranger.

Social media and text-messaging have increased pressure on students to respond hastily to messages from friends, and meeting those expectations is likely to trump saying "hi" to strangers, says Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. If anything, students who are texting while walking around campus probably have as much of a social life as they can handle. “If you’re already juggling that many social relationships," he says, "do you really want to talk to strangers and potentially add another friend?”

For the latest technology news from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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