A new app makes it possible to anonymously live the life of a stranger for 20 days, seeing where they go and what they do—not the carefully curated version they might put on Facebook or Instagram, but the everyday details like the fact they always go to the same sandwich spot for lunch.
"The question was, could we produce some kind of software that brings out the capability of imagining the lives of strangers?" says Kevin Slavin, director of MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems research group, which developed the app along with MIT's Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.
As you and your distant partner get up and go to work or school or wherever else the world takes you, the app tracks your path, pulling related photos from Foursquare or Google Maps along the way. If you stop in a certain coffee shop, the app will find a picture someone took there, and send it to your partner. Though neither person has to actively do anything—and no locations are ever specifically named, so anonymity is preserved—their partner will slowly get an impression of their life.
"We’re trying to provide just enough to the recipient of your life to allow someone to imagine it without providing actual information—it’s something in between information and imagination," Slavin explains.
The idea was inspired by an observation from Tinsley Galyean, director of the Dalai Lama Center: Social platforms are making it easier to connect with people that we already know, but possibly pushing us farther away from others.
"If you take a look at the types of things [people] are saying to each other on Secret, it's not a flattering portrait of human race," Slavin says. "It’s a good example of how, when we produce software that provides anonymity, it often brings out the worst in people."
20 Day Stranger, by contrast, hopes to breed empathy by giving a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else. The coordinators are recruiting people from around the world, so each person can pair with someone far away both geographically and from their social circle.
Though it's only an iPhone app at this point (in development now, with plans to be in the App Store in a couple of months), the team plans to introduce an Android version as soon as they can, to help get a broader mix of users.
The project lasts 20 days because that's just long enough to give a true sense of how someone lives. "It’s important to see enough of someone to get the rhythm of their life, but it's also short enough to make that connection feel precious—you only have 20 days with them," Slavin says.
At the end of the experiment, each person has one chance to send a message to the other—either to say goodbye, or to exchange contact information if they like. And then there’s the option to do it again with someone else.
"If it works, if it succeeds, you’ve started to model the life of a stranger in your head and maybe in your heart, and if it really works, you start to realize that all the strangers around you all have complex and rich lives," Slavin says.
"There’s an old David Foster Wallace idea that the great error we all make is we go through our lives convinced that we each are the protagonist," he adds. "This is a tool to offset that condition."