Saturday, February 19, 2005

Conversational Location Project :: Boston

February 17, 2005

The Conversational Location Project is a project conceived through a conversation with my Grandma Lane. We were talking about how the world has become increasingly small due to the Internet and travel. I protested that the world is still pretty big and that people can get lost in it if they choose. We decided we did not have enough experience testing our theories and hence, the project was born.

The basic rules are these: 1) I can only locate a person by talking face to face with another person. 2) That means, no phones, phonebook, internet use or anything other than face to face conversation. 3) When a specific direction is given, I have to follow it. Once I have reached the new location, I can ask for more directions. 4) To bail me out in a dead end, I can track down others in the area that I think might be able to help, but I can only do it face to face; I cannot call them for help.

On February 17, 2005 I took the commuter rail from Providence to Boston, MA with my friend Seth Gass (for companionship and video documentation) to try and find my friend Jenny Frankowski. Jenny is a person that I grew up with since second grade, but I have not been very good about keeping in contact. I serendipitously ran into Jenny last year (2004) in New York at a subway stop. She was visiting a friend and I was running an errand for my internship. Totally incidental. Since then I have not made contact with her, so I took it upon myself to re-create a serendipitous moment for my first trial of the Conversational Location Project. The only information I had about Jenny, however is that she works in Boston. That’s it. No picture or place of employment, just that she has a job in Boston.

Starting in South Station, I asked a girl where I could find Jenny. She suggested Harvard Square. A few stops later on the Red Line and I was at Harvard Square. Immediately, I was told by another girl to head towards Cambridge. That was basically where I started. A few more stops back across the water and we were in Cambridge. At Cambridge I talked with a few people, but no one gave me a specific lead until I ran into Dina. Dina told me to head towards Northeastern and find "Coop". So that’s where we headed.

"Coop" turned out to be an elusive figure. Standing outside his dorm hall (Dina gave us that much info) I began asking people for "Coop". In the process I met almost twenty people including his roommate and his group of friends. None of these people could track down Coop, but a few offered helpful advice. In the end, Matt told me to head towards Downtown Crossing in Boston to try and find Jenny.

Downtown Crossing was a difficult place to conduct this project. People there seemed to be in a rush and not willing to have a conversation or to be on video. Only in this part of town did people get angry with us for having a video camera (besides South Station). Seth and I began to wander a bit more aimlessly, in a sort of derive sense. After some pizza and soup, we walked to the tourist areas, but at 3pm on a Thursday we really did not find anyone. Two girls taking a smoke break offered us some advise of trying to find McFadden's. The place ended up being a popular sports bar, but it was still 4pm. No one there.

At this point, I called upon Rule #4. I knew that another friend of mine named Megan Horvath was in the Boston area and she was on the cheerleading squad with Jenny in junior high. I ran into Megan a little over a year ago in Pittsburgh where we grew up. She had told me she was pursuing a Master's in Education at Boston College. Knowing this, Seth and I headed towards Boston College. That turned out to be very far away.

An hour on the trains later, we were in Brighton, MA at the foot of Boston College's campus. Asking for the graduate center, we headed across campus. We nearly passed by the correct building, but a friendly person that had been following us across campus who had heard us asking others where the Fulton Building is located. In the Fulton building we found two graduate students that did not know Megan, but they did think to check the college's listing of students. Because I did not suggest this or actually use the internet, this was ok. They did find Megan in the directory, which told me her address. I did not initially feel comfortable heading for her house, so I checked the school of education.

The School of Education was empty, basically. In the admissions office we found some people that knew Megan, but they did not know her schedule or where to find her. After a little more wandering, we decided to head for her house. It was getting dark and cold, so we wanted to find some one soon.

JGL and Megan Horvath

Asking a police officer where to go, we found Megan's street and in short order we found Megan. "Oh my God! What are you doing here?!" Not entirely surprised by her response, I explained the project to her and after a minute she let us in to rest our feet and to get some water. Megan told us that she had seen Jenny in December 2004 in Pittsburgh at a Chinese restaurant. They did not speak to each other, but acknowledged each other. Had Megan spoken to Jenny, they CLP might have become complete for this mission. One conversation short, but close.

I was surprised in conducting this project how many people thought I was trying to track down the love of my life. If I were trying to track down the love of my life, I don't think I would go about it but with a video camera and a sign asking people in the street. Some people thought more disturbing that I was simply looking for a friend of mine just to say "hi".

8 hours of separation is what stands between myself and Megan Horvath, not a bad number, I think. It was a little more than 6 degrees of separation, but the project displayed the value of a conversation in contemporary society. Whether people thought the project cute or malice, the reactions show how people are aware of the influence and power of face to face communication.

I plan to expand this project, but have not decided in what direction. I think I might want to try this project again in another town to see if there are differences between the networks in towns. Are other cities closer socially? What level of closeness does Boston actually have? Did I choose a particularly difficult city to start this project? We'll see.

Thanks to Seth Gass for being a great friend and video guy. Seth was 100% gung-ho for this project and supported me through out. Thanks to everyone in Boston that I talked to and helped me out. Without these people the network would have been drastically different.

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