- Create common ground
- Timing is everything
- The power of audio
- Embodiment can create intimacy
- Carefully design the balance between listening and making connection
With the experiments The Gossip and Counter Consideration we explored the power of anonymity and intimacy when creating an event with a high emphasis on storytelling and story sharing.
The Gossip provided a hybrid experience where visitors could join online and on-site by calling a specific phone number. Invoking the nostalgia of a landline call, it takes the form of an audio experience and an exchange over the phone between two people who have never met before. The stories in the experience work as inspiration for you to share your own story. The experience works like a ‘choose your own adventure’ style story where you press a number to choose how the story continues. In the end you are asked to share your own story with someone else, and you automatically get reconnected with someone else in the experience, anonymously. What story do you share? This experiment took place at Tetem, Enschede. Read more about this experiment.
Sharing an intimate story takes courage. All the participants in The Gossip joined the experiment anonymously. Interestingly, being anonymous became one of the key conditions for intimacy. While at first we thought this was counter-intuitive – after all, why would speaking anonymously engender more intimacy? Yet it seemed that staying anonymous created a space where participants could speak more freely without fear of judgement, thus inspiring a feeling of intimacy. This wasn’t enough for some participants though. Although being anonymous helped, they also needed privacy during their call. At the venue, we saw some people physically transform into cocoons, trying to become smaller and edge towards a wall, cupping their hands over their mouth. Two participants even bolted outside the exhibition space just to be out of earshot of others. Interestingly, they were happy to share intimate stories with one other person, but not many.
Here’s an example…
You lock eyes with someone you don’t know.
PRESS 1 If you smile at them
PRESS 2 If you hold the stare
The participants had to answer a total of 12 questions in this journey, allowing them to conjure up reflections on intimate connections between strangers. The idea was to inspire participants and get them ready for their own story sharing. After answering each question, the participant heard a set of street-side recordings from when we posed the very same question to people in public spaces.
Second part of The Gossip
At the end of the voice prompts in the first half, the participant was given two choices: 1) To share a story of intimacy with somebody else (live), or 2) to record their story of intimacy. These recorded stories were collected in an intimate archive, called a treasury. If the participant chose option 1 we used a matching technology to connect callers randomly and anonymously. There was a small chance that participants might be connected with someone in the same space as them, i.e. physically at Tetem. Ideally though, and to the point of the experiment, we preferred to connect people at Tetem with the audience who joined online.
Doing something new and unexpected made a lot of the participants feel very anxious and awkward. This was felt especially when they were waiting for a stranger to call them. In order to ease these moments of suspense, we found it was important for participants to find some form of common ground. For this, we played voice recordings of other people’s stories during the first part of the audio experience. Our aim was to give participants inspiration for their own story, but more importantly let them know that others had been in the same experience before and probably felt the same emotions as they did. In this way, they found common ground with other people who had been in a similar situation, providing a comforting sense of familiarity. Knowing that they were not alone in doing this experience helped ease their awkwardness while on the phone. Ultimately, having common ground ensured a pathway for communication which led to trust and, most significantly, contributed to a safe space without judgement.
It takes time to warm up to the idea of sharing an intimate story with a total stranger. The Gossip opened up the sharing space through the voice recordings, a way to ease people into the session. Yet we noticed that some participants needed a longer run up to allow their headspace to fundamentally shift. Some of the participants had arrived at Tetem fresh out of the Gogbot festival – a lively music, art and technology show. They were energised and excited by what the night had in store for them. While these same individuals were willing to try The Gossip, it required a warm-up phase with plenty of gentle instructions and some time to ground their energy. Many were curious about how long The Gossip would take as they might want to move on to another event, and this sense of urgency affected the intimacy of the event. Similarly, some people in the online group remarked that the need for dinner and other personal commitments were impacting the intimacy of the experience. We timed the event to start around 6 pm which, in The Netherlands at least, is prime dinner time. Timing was a critical success factor in decreasing distraction and thereby creating the conditions for presence and ultimately intimacy.
Counter Consideration > Intimacy through embodiment
Counter Consideration is a hybrid experience that took place online and onsite, in a park in Eindhoven at STRP festival. Invoking the spirit of the transistor radio, audiences were invited to physically move between multiple audio channels while dropping into various sonic realities ranging from flash fiction, vibrant soundscapes, intimate conversations and tales of techno culture. The experience provided a space for navigating these stories and finding a form of intimacy with both the physical space and the stories themselves, moving through them together with other visitors, but within your own intimate audio space using your earplugs. One of the participants described it as “an intimate experience done collectively”. Read more about this experiment.
Navigating the stories
In Counter Consideration the location, the site, was more present and important in the experience. In the onsite experience, the audience members walked around in the park and saw visual clues of location for the radio channels, where they could read up on the artist providing the radio channel. The channels were carefully places in the space which connected the story to the location. By navigating your body to tune into different channels created a new form of intimacy and relation to the story. Many participants walked a bit inside a radio channel area. Moving while listening is a form of finding a different form of concentration or relation to the story. We learned from the participants that all these acts of movement through the space added to the feeling of intimacy.
For the online visitors this worked a bit different. They were navigation a specially designed website to move through the channels. The channels all had shapes that were corresponding to the shapes of the onsite park. This created the feeling of a map, which felt more like a game. This helped the online visitors with a playful experience that is not merely an audio channel on the speakers of your laptop or phone. The knowledge listening to these audio channels together with the visitors onsite also helped creating a more intimate experience. But after all, the online visitors did not have the same quality of intimacy as the onsite visitors had.
Creating connection in a hybrid sense
Both experiments took place on the mobile phones of the participants and both were very audio driven, but the difference between Counter Consideration and The Gossip is that at The Gossip we connected two visitors together in the storytelling experience. At Counter Consideration we ended all together as a group, to discuss what we have experienced more generally. Also the online participants and most of the storytellers were present through a WhatsApp group. This conversation was managed by two people, one of them managing the online group and the other the onsite group, bringing together all the questions and stories shared in the WhatsApp group and the onsite group. As the artists and storytellers were present this created more of a Q&A format than that of the story sharing format that The Gossip provided. One of the online participants commented that because she didn’t have visual clues of what was happening onsite she was not sure if her question was appreciated. We learned that this form of connection and sharing needs to be designed really carefully. It helps to make this a part of the experience, like at The Gossip, so it feels more connected.
The power of audio
In both The Gossip and Counter Consideration, we learned the combination of audio and storytelling is really powerful. The impact that audio and sounds can have on the intimacy and experience of a story is often understimated. As both experiments used mobile phones, the audio became more personal and intrusive, directly broadcasted in someone’s ear. Some participants of both experiments commented that while using ear pieces and audio through phones makes the experience more intimate, it also limits them from making contact with other participants. However, this can be orchestrated. For example, at the end of The Gossip, you are connected to someone else. Still, it is definitely something to consider when designing an event when connection is an important element.
Location partners: STRP, Eindhoven and Tetem, Enschede.