The Friendship Project: Peoplescape (Part One)

January 6, 2010

Let’s face it, these days through social media tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, we can meet friends, followers, and contacts in a matter of seconds.  How many of these “friends” and “contacts” do we really feel a sense of connection with?

About a month ago, I wrote a post about a Pecha Kucha event I attended.  In it, I mentioned that I was blown away by the final speaker of the night. Not only did she blow me away with her amazing delivery…after all she practiced about 60 hours on the six minute, 40 second presentation…and it showed! But she also blew me away with a brilliant project she participated in. It was a social experiment, called Peoplescape, where she met and befriended one person a day for a year. Her name is Maria Scileppi and I feel honored to share her story with you here.

I feel a deep sense of admiration for Maria because she took the time and energy to get to know the people in her project a little bit deeper.  I also feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to meet Maria in person and talk with her more about her Peoplescape project…

Why did you decide to do the Peoplescape project?

I had just moved to Chicago and was starting fresh in every way- new city, new career and I didn’t really know anyone. Even though I’m from Chicago it had been eight years since I lived here. I also remember the moment I fell in love with the city and wanted Chicago to embrace me. I knew the only way for this to happen was if I embraced Chicago through its people.

Please describe the interactions: did you have a minimum amount of time that you spent with your new friends?

I had three simple rules for this experiment: It had to be a significant social exchange, I had to hold off as long as possible before revealing my project and asking them to be in it, and I couldn’t go home until I had made a friend. Sometimes I felt a connection with someone after 30 minutes, other times it took many hours. There were times it would take several hours just to start a conversation with someone. I never based the friendship on time, but rather through feeling the connection.

How did you document this project?

Once I asked someone to be my “person for the day” I would take their picture and jot down a few notes. I also documented their name, email, occupation and the answer to the question, “Why are you here?” which they could answer on any level, i.e. literally, figuratively, metaphysically. That night I’d go home and write up the story of our encounter. The material was showcased in Peoplescape – the exhibition on June 13, 2009 and the Pecha Kucha presentation. Currently, I am working on other forms of expression for Peoplescape, the concept.

Please describe more about the Peoplescape exhibition that took place last June. Where did it take place? Did all of the friends you meet become friends, too?

The first (and only at this point) happening took place on June 13, 2009 at Flatfile gallery. It was definitely not the typical staid art show. The cost of entry into the event was answering the question, “What have you done that no one else in the room has done?” When they turned this in they received someone else’s answer. Their mission: find the person who’s answer they have. Many people found their person but even if they didn’t, they now had a reason to walk up to any of the 350 people at the event and start a conversation. The answers were amazing and all over the map. I cried I was laughing so hard at ones I was able to hold onto afterward (see Happening card below) 88 of the 412 people (sometimes I documented more than one person in a day) in the project came to the opening.

Describe the pressure you felt in trying to meet one friend per day.

I didn’t realize how much pressure I felt each day until I had met someone for the day and felt the weight lift from my shoulders. It was always scary because meeting someone wasn’t something I could rely on myself for it required someone to say yes to me, which was out of my control.

Who were some of the most memorable friends that you met?

Brett, my January 20th, was a distraught honorably discharged Iraqi vet. I was at a Starbucks to meet a blind date. Brett was sitting next to us and it was obvious he needed a friend STAT. I shifted my focus to him and listened to his story. My date left and I continued to listen and console Brett. He’d just come back, his stuff hadn’t even arrived yet. The military was his life and his identity and now he didn’t know what to do or think. He’s a drunk (his words) and he stays away from his family because he doesn’t want to embarrass them. He was feeling guilt and at one point went into the Starbucks bathroom to drink a 1/5 of vodka so he could muster the courage to tell me how he accidentally killed a civilian family in Falujah. He haunted me for weeks. We had a couple email exchanges and I tried to be a support for him. I fear that he is now on the streets.

Jessimy, my March 19th, is now my best friend and was the catalyst for the exhibition. She had just moved to Chicago and also didn’t know anyone. We hit it off and became partners in crime. She found my business card, explaining the project, in her bag and didn’t remember meeting me so she emailed me. I also didn’t remember meeting her but told her if we met up, she could be in it. Turns out we had a brief conversation at a roller derby pre-party at Cobra lounge. We started hanging out on a regular basis and she was with me when I met many of the people in the project. I was at a point where I didn’t think I had it in me to do it. She said yes you have to put it all together and you have four months to pull it off but It’ll help you. She became my editor and producer for the show (see below).

I met Peggy, my November 8th, on a flight down to Austin. She was sitting next to me reading, “Starting a Museum: The Essentials”. I was intrigued so I asked if she was starting a museum. She wasn’t but she does write historical plays for different communities and has the towns people act it out. She really liked the concept of my project so we chatted the rest of the flight. I got an email from Peggy a couple weeks later telling me about her flight home. She sat next to a woman but never talked to her. Then as they waited for their bags they were standing beside each other. Peggy, wanting to kill time, decided to tell the woman about meeting me and my project and the question I always ask: Why are you here? The woman then blurted out, “I’m here because my sister has cancer.” They bonded and hugged when Peggy revealed her sister also has cancer. This was a huge moment for me because it was the first time I felt the ripple affect of what I was doing. My friendship was spreading.

As you can tell, Maria’s project was fascinating. To read more about her project, please check back on Friday. Maria will share more stories about the friends she met and will share some of the lessons she learned as a result of this project.

1 Lori January 6, 2010 at 2:32 pm

This is an amazing story, Tim, one filled with courage and tenacity.

I can understand how she felt – being in a new city can be really tough (I’ve moved many, many times, myself). But, Maria really took the bull by the horns!

Being a military veteran, myself, I felt deep pangs of sadness when I read about her experience meeting Brett. On a flight home once, I sat next to a young man who I later found out was returning from Afghanistan. Within a few minutes, we struck up a conversation and I offered to buy him a glass of wine – then realized he had no right arm. I started crying – not out of pity – but out of anger and sadness for what war has done to the people of this world.

We emailed a bit after that but I’ve since lost touch with him.

Apologies for my rambling there – but I wanted to share that with you.

Thanks again for featuring Maria. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2!

2 Tim January 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Hi Lori: Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Your story was pretty powerful, too. I can really understand why you experienced the emotions that you did. During the summer I saw a few soldiers in uniform and immediately had such a deep feeling of admiration for them and what they’ve been through. It really stirred up a lot of emotions because, in my mind, their story is one of absolute bravery. They are modern day heroes. Maria’s project really makes me realize just how important friendship and connection really are and that sometimes we really need to work harder at it. Thanks again!

3 Lance January 7, 2010 at 5:29 am

What a completely wonderful story. And I think it really shows a couple of things – how challenging it can be to go up to someone new, and be a bit vulnerable – and how deeply we do want to connect with others.

I love this story, and the goodness Maria (and you!) spread in our world!

4 Nadia - Happy Lotus January 7, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Hi Tim,

Wow! This is so amazing. Talk about someone taking charge of their life and making it an adventure! I think it is wonderful that she tries to make a new friend every day. What a wonderful accomplishment especially since so many people feel so lonely.

Her story about the vet just broke my heart. It goes to show you what war does to people and how important it is for our society to welcome soldiers back with open arms and support. I pray that he is not homeless.

Thank you so much for sharing Maria’s project with us and I love how she made a new best friend from it. So cool. 🙂

5 Tim January 7, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Hi Lance: You are so right about our need (and want) to connect with each other and how difficult it is to meet new people sometimes. You’d think that, living in a big city with several million people, it would be easier to connect. Ironically, I’ve met people when I’ve lived in smaller towns and attended smaller schools. Lance, thanks for all that you do to connect with your blog readers and other bloggers. Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Nadia: Adventure is a great description for the project. I totally agree with you on your words about our returning soldiers. Her story about Brett was haunting and really moved me. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

6 mike January 8, 2010 at 12:45 am

I’m not buying what maria’s selling. The whole idea of this project seems selfish to me.

7 Tim January 8, 2010 at 7:55 am

Hi Mike: I would have to disagree with your comment, but you’re certainly entitled to your opinion.

8 Julie (NY) January 8, 2010 at 11:07 am

I agree with Mike. I am not quite sure how I would feel if a stranger who I had been chatting with later told me I was a lab rat in an experiment. Especially had I opened up and told her anything personal. To say that you made 400+ legitimate new “friends” within a year sounds phony. Had Maria been a nurse, a missionary, or anyone who was interacting with people based on anything other than filling a quota, I could respect the effort.

I’m confused over the term “connection”. Does it really only take one encounter to make a connection with someone? I guess it’s a matter of opinion; sort of like believing in love at first site. Befriending a stranger is nothing new and I would be much more interested to see a reverse study on connecting with people via social media tools.

9 Jade January 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Sounds like there is a little bit of jealousy out there by some “doubtingToms” who have decided a negative attitude to a project they would never engage in is a creative and thoughtful choice. “Toms” need to be more creative and open without prejudice. Just because they would not do something does not mean it is wrong or shallow or whatever negative label they need to apply. These Toms need to be happy in their tiny, fear-compelled, existences and not allow that to kill-joy the greatness of others who dare.

10 Kevin January 8, 2010 at 3:31 pm

I admire Maria’s tenacity but also think Julie made some excellent points on what qualifies as a connection. I would be interested to hear Maria’s initial hypothesis as well as how she analyzed her results to draw a conclusion.

Instead of making assumptions, why not embrace other people’s opinions? Jade, it sounds like you are the one who needs to be more open without prejudice.

11 Maria January 8, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Wow, hey there. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it’s really wonderful to hear how the idea touches you.
I must say, I’ve never gotten anything close to a negative response before.

Mike and Julie, I’m fascinated how you can see anything wrong with reaching out to my world and getting to know the people that make up Chicago. Documenting an encounter is a way to make it special. Once I felt a connection I would ask them if they’d be in the project. There were some people that turned me down and that’s cool. I moved on.
And Mike, I’m not selling anything. I’m celebrating friendship. Don’t be so jaded, man.

Kevin, I would define a connection as getting a sense of who they are, knowing something personal about them. It’s a feeling and the process was organic. The whole project shows a range of friendships from the closest of friends to a fleeting moment. All have value. I can tell you the story of meeting each and every one of the 412 people and I remember most of their names.

12 Tim January 9, 2010 at 8:33 am

Thank you everyone, and especially Maria for commenting. I, too, did not expect to hear any negative response about this project. But, I welcome any skepticism or opposing views on this blog because I really believe in free speech. As I stated in the original post about Pecha Kucha night…Maria’s presentation about this project was the last of the evening. It was powerful, not just in its topic but its delivery. Upon completion of her presentation, the audience let out a collective gasp, a sigh. All of us were blown away. I’m very happy that these interviews allowed Maria to go into greater detail about some of the people she met.

As I recounted to Maria when I met her in person…about five years ago I started talking to a panhandler/homeless man after leaving work one day. For those of us living in a big city, we typically encounter many panhandlers. Most of the time, we may give these panhandlers some spare change or a couple of dollars or we may continue walking. But on this particular day, I stopped and listened to the gentleman tell me more about himself. He told me about his family and how he lost his job. I told him, in the best way that I could that I understood (at that point I had been laid off a couple times myself). We talked for about five or ten minutes and I could sense how happy the man was that someone took the time to listen to his story. I think I gave him five bucks and shook his hand as I left. Afterward, I felt like I made a genuine human connection…and at least a little difference in this man’s life. He certainly made a difference in mine.

Maria’s project is a reminder to me (and hopefully you too) about how important we are to each other as social creatures and how interconnected we are. It motivates me to listen and try to get to know people (especially strangers) a little more than I do now. In our big cities especially, it is so easy to stick our iPod earplugs in our ears and crank the tunes and live in our own world. Sorry for the ramble.

13 mike January 9, 2010 at 3:24 pm

what exactly am I jaded to? I’m sorry, but I disagree with your entire concept. Social Media tools are exactly that, tools. To base a friendship off the medium in which you use to engage people is silly. You’re the carpenter who’s wary of the hammer and insists on continuing to use a rock. I’m baffled as to how you can call this a social experiment as if you were Milgram or Asch. You seem to base your findings on your feelings and emotions rather than any sort of proof. Why not at least “friend” a random person a day, put the same effort into establishing a conversation, and compare the this short term and long term experience to meeting people face to face? In trying to prove face to face connections are more valuable than internet ones I find it amazing that you didn’t even explore the other side. I’m even more amazed that though out your entire process you hadn’t heard any sort of criticism; do you ever wonder if people are being entirely honest with you? I feel you’ve taken advantage of the fact that people love to talk about themselves especially to an attractive women as yourself. good luck with your diary.

14 Tim January 9, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Hi Mike:

You made some interesting points. I will say this: unlike a scientific experiment, any conclusions from a social experiment need to be made through feelings and emotions and observations (which I believe was the case in this instance). When it comes to friendship, that’s all we have: our gut. There is no litmus test to determine whether a connection is genuine or not. I don’t think Maria intended her project to be scientific . Nor do I think she intended to take advantage of anyone (see part two).

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