Atlantic Cities

An App for Making Friends on the Subway

When Stanley Milgram identified the "familiar strangers" that pervade city life in 1972, he defined them as people one sees often but never interacts with. Fellow commuters, for instance, or people who share a corner shop. This class of city dweller still exists — recent research suggests an entire community of close encounters out there.

But now, there's a similar class of "familiar strangers" in a new sphere -- online. The friend of a Facebook friend, for instance, or a Twitter follower who happens to live nearby.

It's this latter class that really drives Playdope, an app released last week by New York City-based developer Matt Newberg. Playdope aims to connect people whose paths through the city overlap in ways both digital and physical. Newberg hopes his program will serve as an ice-breaker that elevates the familiar stranger relationship into simply a familiar one.

"'Familiar strangers' encapsulates everything about what it is we're trying to solve," says Newberg. "They occur online as much as they occur offline — maybe even more online. That's one thing that obviously Milgram never really talked about."

 

Here's how it works. Playdope users must log in through Facebook (a minimum requirement) and enter three personal interests and a very basic bio (Facebook profiles are the default). Users have the option of uploading contacts and granting Twitter access, too. The idea is to build a network of people whose lives intersect but who themselves wouldn't normally interact in the flesh.

When Playdope is open, the app identifies a handful of people within that network who are near you at the moment. A notification alerts users when they're especially close to a familiar stranger, allowing them to open that user's Playdope profile and see the interests and people they have in common.

This is the point when the connection typically stops — the digital equivalent to Milgram seeing a fellow commuter on a train but not talking to that person. So Playdope nudges a connection by letting the users play a quick trivia game. With the proverbial ice broken, users can enter a chat space that lasts 24 hours. From there they can trade contact information to meet offline, or let the encounter fade.

"We want to create on-the-fly meet-ups that happen naturally," says Newberg. "The whole idea behind the short window for chat is the connection either gets made right here, in this locale, or it disappears until the next time we meet."

Playdope launched in New York as well as college campuses. Business Insider describes the app as Tinder meets QuizUp, and Newberg says he was inspired, in part, by an article about random Words With Friends opponents who got married. But he also insists that Playdope is not a dating app.

Rather, Newberg is operating under the assumption that a spirit of social exploration resides, to some extent, in everyone who chooses to live in a city. He's also recognizing that online interactions involve a certain level of intimacy that could become rather awkward in a real-world setting. In that sense, Playdope serves as a wedge between digital and actual personas that might be quite distinct.

"I think people try to create two realms: the presence they have online, and the life you lead in real life," says Newberg. "My generation has had to confront this issue of: what happens when I'm meeting you for the first time but it's not our first encounter?"

Stanley Milgram — meet Millennials.

All images courtesy of Matt Newberg.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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