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How to motivate people in public places to indulge in live conversations instead of turning to their phones

Image credit: https://dailyasianage.com/news/92222/harmful-side-effects-of-mobile-phones-on-teenagers

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Povilas S
Povilas S Aug 19, 2022
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Imagine yourself sitting alone in a cafe, bar, on a bench, on public transport, etc. and having not much to do - you might start a convo with a stranger out of boredom/loneliness/curiosity, etc., but since you have your phone with you, it's way easier to turn to browse...
What would help motivate people to prioritize live conversations (even though it means stepping out of their comfort zone) over their phones?
Why is this important:
  • People are more and more "inside their phones". The act of turning to your phone is becoming a norm even when spending time with people close to you. We are progressively losing the value of prioritizing live communication.
  • Social media and screen addiction are also becoming a bigger and bigger issue in society, especially amongst younger generations. This challenge is targeting a smaller scope problem which can contribute to the lessening of the mentioned addictions.
A while ago I posted a standalone idea targeting this problem, it sparked a few more creative solutions from other brainstormers. I'll link it as a creative contribution below. However, I believe this problem can be approached from different angles and yield more creative solutions. I'm looking forward to your ideas.
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Creative contributions

Gamification of public spaces to integrative interactive experiences

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Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Aug 19, 2022
One solution for this would be to infuse elements of playfulness somehow and gamify the public spaces. Especially the spaces like bus stop, airport terminals and train stations where people spend more time could integrate activities. For example, the airport can raise several dogs and cats with whom the waiting passengers can play with, cuddle and spend their waiting time.
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A game for free drinks

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Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Aug 19, 2022
Come up with any game in public spaces for which to register, you must deposit your phone and be phone-less for a while. Offer free drinks and beverages as the reward for the game winners. Alcohol in the right amount will help loosen up social anxiety for people and they will be more likely interacting with each other.
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Shutting your phone off as a public transportation fare

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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković Aug 31, 2022
People being on their phones is the biggest problem in public transportation I think. Absolutely everyone is on their phones.
How about if when you enter a bus, instead of having a card of sorts to pay your fare on a scanner, you could also just press your phone next to it and it will block the use of it for the next 15 to 30 minutes. Depending on what type of transportation or line it is. When the controllers come up, you just show them your phone which is shut down.
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Povilas S
Povilas S23 days ago
Sounds good, I like the creativity! I propose instead of shutting the phone off completely, to simply block all forms of internet connection (both wifi and mobile data). The problem with shutting the phone off completely is that a person then can't be reached even if there's an emergency and someone needs to call them urgently. In big cities commuting might take long, some people spend 1-1,5 hours just going one way to work or back home. Imagine you missed a call to inform you that your relative got an accident or an invitation to the interview for your dream job.
There's not much to do with your phone if you don't have an internet connection, you could chat with someone via SMS, but people are not used to do that these days since messaging apps are way more popular, and most of peopel's contacts are in the form of social media. You could browse some old pictures for fun or take selfies, but that's about it.
Instead of an ordinary public transport ticket app, there would be a specialized app that, when receiving signal from the ticket scanner on a bus, train, etc. would turn off your internet connection through the phone's settings and block the possibility to retrieve it manually until a certain distance between the phone and the signal transmitter would be reached (you step out of the vehicle and it drives away).
If you want to keep the internet on, you buy a normal ticket.
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković22 days ago
Povilas S Yeah that's an improvement.
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Conversation carriage

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Ambrose Chua
Ambrose Chua Sep 23, 2022
A less coercive way is to dedicate a carriage or area of the train to have conversations, such that one can opt-in to having conversations. These carriages can have seating designed to encourage face-to-face conversations.
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Signs "prohibiting" phone use in places convenient for social interactions

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Povilas S
Povilas S Aug 19, 2022
The idea is described in detail here.
Instead of, or in addition to signs, memes could also be painted or hung as posters, stickers, etc., in places where live social interactions are most likely to happen. Memes such as this one:

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Priority seating on public transportation

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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković Aug 31, 2022
As you have bus or subway seats that are designated for the pregnant or the elderly, you could have a sort of public transportation zones where the sign is two stick figures conversing.
The first thought is that it's a problem to enforce this, but it's rare to see someone not give up their seat for the pregnant, elderly, or people with small kids in buses without an enforcer of it. The sign has its strength on its own. Of course, there is a morality in play for the established norm, substantially more than for conversation.
So what are the ways we could promote or ensure that the seats labelled for speakers become the norm or self-regulated by the passengers?
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Povilas S
Povilas S23 days ago
Do you mean that people who sit there must talk to each other? The idea is not bad, but it's a bit complicated. Enforced conversation between strangers is unlikely to go smoothly. I imagine this could work if one person sits there and then someone who finds them interesting sits near and starts to talk (because they wanted anyway).
Another problem with this is that familiar people might simply sit there and talk and thus take away the possibility to socialize from those who don't know each other. Also, you can hardly talk all the time, so if there are silent gaps in the middle of the conversation are people still allowed to sit there?
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković22 days ago
Povilas S What if there's an area, let's say the middle of the bus where these priority seats are, and there you have the device that jams the internet on phones? Underneath the seats. Similar to the bus ride fare idea, but without having to scan the phone. If it's possible to block them at that particularly small space of four seats, or eight seats.
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Povilas S
Povilas S22 days ago
Miloš Stanković Yes, that sounds good, but then remove the signs for mandatory talking or rephrase them in some other, more gentle way, to look encouraging, but not enforcing.
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Create more areas with private vibes in public spaces

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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković Aug 31, 2022
A big issue with speaking to strangers in public is worrying about other people who are not a part of the conversation listening in. Be it reacting or chiming in. Even doing nothing. It simply raises the risk of looking weird to more people than just the one or two you wanted to speak to. Such is the societal norm this far gone.
That's why I think that designing public spaces with a caccoonish vibe is a pretty great contribution to solving this issue. As in the second photo in this contribution.
Having water in fountains as a white background noise works great as it is enjoyable for most people, and shortens the area in which the voice is projected. So maybe having more small fountains in parks could mitigate the social stigma too.
I like the way the benches are laid out here, as they are close to each other so you can start conversations with people, yet be private on your own bench, and the whole areas are small enough to give it a private secluded vibe. So having these mini islands in broader parks or plazas seems like a great idea.
Making smaller compartments, for like two seats or four, on public transportation would be too expensive for the benefit most likely.
What are some other ways we can create more private sections in public areas?
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Povilas S
Povilas S23 days ago
You make a very good point about the anxiety of others around hearing when you try to talk to someone unfamiliar to you. However, I'm not sure whether making more "cocoonish" spaces would encourage more people to socialize or whether it would deter more people from it. Perhaps there should be some right percentage of more private spaces, but the majority of communal looking ones, this is because the second ones effectively remove the feeling of being isolated. The white noise from the fountains is a good idea.
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković22 days ago
Povilas S I) Cacoons are tucked in from the sides, but at the front, they are open so you can enjoy the spaciousness of the outdoors. Ideally, cacoons would have two, or a maximum of three benches ideally.
Because there's some social stigma about sitting on the same bench with a stranger already on it. But if the two benches are close by, ideally diagonally across each other, or 90 degrees, then it's completely socially acceptable to sit there. From then on now, it's far less anxious to try and start a conversation with a stranger.
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stanković22 days ago
Povilas S II) I also thought that there could be a mass installation of small speakers in public areas for playing music, which would serve a dual service. A preferable white noise to make people less anxious others unintended will hear them (cheaper than fountains, cancel out the sound of the traffic too), and as a conversation starter as it's art, and people do like to comment on it. It's an external ice-breaker.
So I would reserve it only for concrete-heavy areas, not parks as people like to relax with more natural sounds of birds and the wind there. But in plazas where the traffic is near, it's an audio improvement.
Maybe placing the speakers in planters or adjacent. Not all speakers are in unison, they play different soothing, chill songs. But are far apart so that's there no overlay.
I'd also reserve it so that only the city managers can play the music remotely, not anyone can operate the display on the spot. The playlist could be decided externally by a website where the citizens of a certain neighbourhood upvote or downvote on songs and they get priority in playing.
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General comments

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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stankovića month ago
As phones have light and GPS sensors, they could provide you with a prompt on unlocking to remind you to speak with other people when you're in public. Obviously, this has to be internally motivated for the user to set it up but there are also a lot of people who want to be more sociable yet chicken out. This could be a nice boost or a reminder.
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Povilas S
Povilas Sa month ago
Miloš Stanković I had the same idea. However, the app should then know which places and what times (regarding the user's schedule) are convenient for socializing. Otherwise, the prompts would soon get annoying if displayed in the wrong places at the wrong times.
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stankovića month ago
Povilas S It can be done solely in parks or squares of the city though? That's easy to mark.
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Povilas S
Povilas Sa month ago
Miloš Stanković Yes, but those are not necessarily best places for socializing, they are arguably even better for having some alone time, this is because there's a lot of space there. When people are in a rather confined space they have a better push to do it. A smoking space near a cafe or a half-empty public bus seems more suitable, but it perhaps depends on a person too, where they feel more up for socializing.
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Miloš Stanković
Miloš Stankovića month ago
This topic of Street furniture that encourages socializing between strangers has a lot of good ideas.
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