By mehera o'brien on July 09, 2010
In every session I attended at the UnConference, I learned something and met someone interesting. But hands down my greatest connection came when I met Maria Scileppi. She was a burned out Art Director with a big job at a big advertising agency in New York when she realized she needed a life re-boot. Quitting her job with cupcakes in tow, she set off to Chicago, where she is the Director of the Chicago Portfolio School. New to Chicago, and an artist at heart, she set out on an amazing social experiment. To meet one person every day for one year. And she did.
Maria had rules. She couldn't go home until she'd made a friend for the day. She had to have an authentic experience. And as such, she didn't ask the person to be her friend (and she didn't tell them about the project) until she felt the moment was right. She didn't want people to say yes just for the sake of the project. It was deeper than that – a richer exploration into human connection. Which, given the digital environment today and the power of social networks, is a pretty interesting topic in my mind. A few people refused her offer, forcing her to find a new friend that same day. One person was even offended. But she succeeded and over the course of a year, she met a woman who has become one of her best friends to date. She met a man recently returned from the war in Afghanistan struggling with dark personal demons. She even met an ex-con who'd just been released from prison on a murder wrap and had missed the whole digital revolution. He didn't even have an email address!
Maria asked everyone one question – why are you here? Some answered literally. Some existentially. And she documented these people, their answers and her experiences with them. After a year she created an exhibition at a local gallery. To attend the show, visitors were asked to write a secret on a card and place it in a jar. Taking someone else's secret, they had to find the owner of it before the night ended. Which gave everyone an excuse to talk to someone they otherwise wouldn't have spoken to. Because that's all many of us need to step outside of our comfort zone and just connect.
Her project's ethos even started to spread. Two of her friends from the project met each other randomly and became friends, realizing they had Maria in common after the fact. One woman was so inspired by the idea of talking to strangers that she slowly befriended a woman on a flight and realized they shared a lot of personal difficulties, namely parents suffering from medical problems. And they struck up a great conversation.
Maria tried to tailor her UnConference talk into a framework of how we as marketers can take lessons of social interaction and apply it to what we do. And she said she was thinking of writing a book about her project. She asked the group for feedback. And I felt the entire tie to marketing, although totally valid, was actually underselling her message. So I blurted out (as I'm prone to do) that I thought it was a book about humanity. About how most people sitting on a bench late at night on a Sunday, when asked to spare change for an ex-con, would shun that person rather than suggesting they sit down. That Maria's openness to the real, physical connections we have to other human beings and the places in which we exist, are powerful lessons we should all stop and appreciate. Maybe it resonated with me as I've just been through a tough personal year myself.
Someone else suggested she try the experiment on Facebook. And write a book about the two projects, showing how they were different, but also how they were similar (as we all suspected there would be some natural parallels). Our session, filled with maybe 15-20 people, became an intimate conversation. The group huddled together and spoke quietly. When time was up, a few of us stayed to talk more. And Maria was encouraged to host her session again the next day.
I told Maria I wanted to be her friend for THAT day. And even though the project is over, I was. We stay in touch. And we ran into each other a month later at the CaT Conference in New York. And she is working on that book! In fact, we started accidentally brainstorming an iPad version, with social networking and physically mapped GPS tie ins, a la Foursquare. An inspiring project, and an inspiring woman.
To learn more about what she did, check out her project's site: http://peoplescape365.com/
As a designer of user behavior, of interaction with digital (and physical) things, I think we can all serve ourselves by thinking of the humanity of our users and the designs we produce for them.