Perhaps at some point in the recent past, a Facebook friend request from a stranger was a curiosity. ("Who could it be?") But as the service has grown to include not just everyone’s ex-boyfriend’s grandmother, but one-seventh of humanity, random friend requests tend to feel creepy—and quickly results in the tap of the "Not Now" button.
But an Internet art project "Selfless Portraits" is seeking to use Facebook as a way to build intimacy between strangers (artistically inclined strangers, that is), by randomly connecting portraitists from around the world with new subjects. Participants in this experiment upload their Facebook profile picture to the Selfless Portraits site, which are then passed along to another Facebook user to be drawn by hand. The trick is this—in order to see the finished portrait of yourself, you have to complete one of someone else who you’re assigned and upload the drawing to the site.
The project is the creation of Ivan Cash and Jeff Greenspan, strategists who came up with the idea while on assignment for Facebook’s communications design team. "Being so immersed within Facebook, our minds would naturally go to ways we could create engaging content and experiences for Facebook users," Cash wrote in an email. Facebook passed on the project, as did a few other brands the duo pitched. Cash says "[some brands] felt it was too risky. What if people didn’t participate? What if someone drew an inappropriate picture? What if someone was offended by their portrait?"
Eleven months later, Cash and Greenspan put out the project on their own (with the help of producer Luis Peña and developer Rally Interactive). And it looks like Zuckerberg missed out on a potentially compelling opportunity. Cash says that since the mid-February launch, 12,000 users from 90 countries have submitted more than 8,000 "inspiring and delightfully unique" portraits. "People seem genuinely excited enough to put real time and effort into their work," he adds. "A Brazilian graffiti artist posted a YouTube video showing the making of his portrait. An illustrator in Amsterdam challenged herself to making one portrait every morning."
This isn’t Cash’s first project exploring the limits of intimacy and anonymity online. His last project, "Snail Mail My Email," in which strangers would hand-write and send digital correspondence as letters for each other, was popular enough to result in a book deal.
"We both love how this project encourages people to make a true connection with another human being, even a stranger, through the lens of creativity," says Cash. Technologies like Facebook, designed to bring people together, can actually have the effect of erecting new walls, by building communities that are transparently exclusive. (You can see who everybody knows, but that doesn’t make you a member.) Selfless Portraits makes a nice gesture at tearing down some of the walls, even for a moment.