Where has human connection gone?

Fresh from The Big Apple, our Senior Account Manager Victoria put her social skills (and deodorant) to the test by taking part in a social movement that saw her eye-to-eye with some of New York's most 'interesting' characters...

Paranoia, awkward glances and, unfortunately, anxiety sweats - these are just a few of the symptoms I, and a lot of others, experience when meeting new people. Are we just shy? A bit rusty when it comes to making friends? Or has the internet destroyed our ability to interact with each other?

Well, according to one woman, the answer is D: all of the above.  Which is why The Connection Movement’s, Amy Silverman, organised ‘Eye to Eye: NYC’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment’ - the world’s biggest gathering of strangers getting real and reconnecting with a bit of justifiable staring. Yikes.

Over the past two years, the group have brought over 5,000 people together, eye-to-eye, in New York.   And, through working with The Liberators International, their mission has reached over 100,000 people from over 150 countries.

The purpose? To get us to reconnect us out-with social media.

According to eMarketer, the average person in the UK will spend 9.5 hours per day consuming media (be it TV, digital, including mobile, or more traditional media), while Adweek states that the average person will spend five years and four months of their lives on social media, second only to consuming TV (at seven years and eight months). 

That's a helluva lot of time staring at our screens.

And while digital friendships take precedence over human interaction (Adweek’s results also show we spend one year three months socialising in comparison) are we losing our ability to really connect?  Amy reckons so.

“We’ve all been there - looking down at our phones, glancing away quickly, not saying ‘hi’ or smiling to the person across from us for fear that we’ll break some sort of social norm.  It’s time to do something good for ourselves and make a change.”

So here I am, in Battery Park, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, cautiously approaching a cluster of seated pairs surrounded by colourful, hand-painted signs declaring: “Eye contact NYC - start here.”

And so I do.

After circling the participants nervously, I’m approached by Jessica - a delightfully chirpy local wearing a ‘where has humanity gone?’ top - who kindly escorts me to a spare yoga mat and invites me to take a seat.  On my right are two girls laughing and chatting as if they’ve been friends for years; to my left, an elderly Chinese woman shows a teenage boy her jewellery and explains each piece in broken English as he listens intently.

Before I can scuttle away awkwardly, Jessica skips over with Mel, an uncomfortable 30-something year old dressed in a rather dapper suit. He shakes my hand and excuses the “dampness”. Anxiety sweat - hooray, something in common!

Thankfully, Mel doesn’t want to gaze into my face for the full minute.  Instead he chats about his work in printing and broken routine and his favourite noodle bar in Soho and his views on social media ruining us as a species (“personally, I don’t want to get to know the guy sitting across from me on the subway, but that’s because he’s cutting his toenails, not because of my iPhone.”).  I, in turn, find myself telling him about my first boyfriend and my gran’s cooking and my worry that the new Will and Grace will be irrelevant and that I’m terribly uncomfortable with what’s going on.

We talk for just shy of 15 minutes, without having any urge to look at our phones. He gives me his number and invites me to dinner with him and his girlfriend.  We decide not to add each other on social media (it feels like cheating on the experience) and part ways, knowing we’ll probably never speak again.

Really, I’m not sure if Amy et al’s movement will lead the change in bringing human interaction back offline or whether it’s happening at a time when social networking fatigue is growing.  After all, recent Deloitte research shows 56% of 16-24-year-olds believe they use their smartphones too much.  But it’s refreshing to unplug and step - or, in my case, sit - outside my comfort zone for a while.

After I leave the experiment, I go on to have drinks with a friend who introduces me to her pal from New Jersey. We have two common Facebook friends - neither are called Mel.

Where has the human connection gone? Where has all the eye contact gone?