How (Not) to Design Meaningful Civic Conversations

These young people were paid to pose for a stock photo, NOT to talk about race relations in America.

As the recent controversy around Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign demonstrates, it’s not easy to design experiences that promote meaningful civic conversations between strangers. The campaign encouraged baristas to write the #RaceTogether hashtag or related messages on customers’ paper coffee cups in order to spark conversations about race relations in America.

To say that this campaign was controversial would be an understatement. Some examples of criticism have included: “it’s just a naked marketing ploy”, “I worked at Starbucks, and I knew #RaceTogether was a joke,” and this scathing systemic critique:

Source: Wisconsin Jobs Now

Despite the controversy and shortcomings of the Starbucks campaign, I still think it is important, if not imperative, for us to have difficult civic conversations on topics like race, gender, inequality, and justice.

Our feelings may be raw, and the inequalities and injustices may seem to be be too great, but not talking about difficult issues will not make them go away. The aspirations of social progress and the obligations of active citizenship require civic conversations — dialogue and engagement about important issues with strangers and those different from ourselves. However, our contemporary lifestyles are increasingly closing in on our opportunities to have serendipitous non-transactional conversations with strangers. Meanwhile, our online self-segregation into what Eli Pariser calls “filter bubbles” certainly does not help the situation either.

The controversies around the Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign got me thinking as a community-centered designer:

How do we design ways to encourage us to talk to strangers and to strengthen our shared humanity? How can we design ways to better facilitate important civic conversations?

To begin answering these questions, here are some design insights that I have found to help facilitate civic conversations:

Make Coordination Easy and Intentions Clear

Inspired by how New Yorkers came together in solidarity and support after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Scott Heiferman founded MeetUp to make it easier for people to connect with strangers with shared interests in their community. MeetUp’s online platform offers organizers an easy and affordable way to create and coordinate groups of like-minded people. MeetUp groups range from “careers to hiking, parenting, tech, photography and urban gardening.”

Screenshot of

I did a search on MeetUp for “race” and found a nearby Feminist Freethinkers group hosting a monthly conversation about intersectionality. It sounds like a safe space to have a deep discussions about race and gender issues. I’m glad that such a group exists. However, it seems like such a group would most likely be a self-selected one. Even if participants arrive as strangers, they are still gathering with the shared intention of having a discussion about the topic of intersectionality. This contrasts with the Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign, where not all parties were exactly opting into a conversation about race with their morning cup of coffee.

Meetup groups help bring together people who already share interests and intentions. This makes it easier to create social spaces that foster honesty and vulnerability, where difficult civic conversations can take place. This helps address the issue of fostering dialogue between like-minded strangers, but how do we design conversations between people who may not immediately share interests or intentions?

Keep it Simple and Break the Ice

If we are going to talk to strangers about the big issues like racism in America, then starting out with mutual introductions and breaking the ice would be a softer entry point than, “here’s your 5 dollar latte; how about that last police shooting of an unarmed black teenager?”

One simple and compelling way to help spark conversations between strangers is Nametag Day, an initiative created by Michael Morgenstern in New York City in 2013 and moving to San Francisco this year. On Nametag Day, observed on the first Saturday in June, volunteers hand out nametags to strangers in public spaces and encourage them to write down their names, wear the nametags, and begin interacting with others in the vicinity.

The Nametag Day site explains:

A nametag says “I am open. I want to talk to you.” It adds an element of humanity to our day, breaking down an invisible barrier between us. As we walk around our cities, we often forget to notice the people around us and miss out on chances to connect.

Nametag Day demonstrates that it is possible to design simple, low-tech, and emotionally compelling ways to foster conversations between strangers. We will probably need more than Nametag Day to help get us to the thornier topics that we need to address in our civic conversations, but it certainly offers us a refreshing jolt of positivity and opens the door to future engagement.

[Note: Nametag Day received a grant from The Awesome Foundation New York, of which I am a trustee.]

Wear a Mask to Keep It Real

An advertisement for The Federalist, 1787, using the pseudonym “Philo-Publius”

Expressing oneself anonymously or pseudonymously is a long-established tactic for addressing difficult and taboo issues: from the Federalist Papers, published pseudonymously by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the United States Constitution, to Yik Yak, a mobile app where college students anonymously discuss the awkward issues they face in their daily lives.

Anonymity helped protect Founding Fathers from political persecution during the Revolutionary War, but it can also enable bullies and trolls online. In my research on Yik Yak, for every earnest conversation that I encountered about topics like “why white girls don’t like dating Asian guys” or “how should I tell my roommate that I’m gay,” I found many more messages oozing in misanthropic, mean-spirited snark, or just plain banality.

Screenshot of Yik Yak interface

Ryan Chapin writes in the Huffington Post:

Yik Yak and other local sources of anonymous content are like bathroom stalls without toilets. They’re useless, they’re sources of unhelpful or harmful conversations, and they’re a complete eyesore.

Overall, I have a more charitable assessment of Yik Yak than Chapin. The anonymity factor definitely increases the troll quotient, but I have also encountered posts that combine witty snark with compelling human storytelling, such as my favorite post from earlier this week: “Congrats to the folks who left the positive pregnancy test in the bathroom at Starbucks.” I have seen other posts where users “keep it real” in exploring their sexuality, negotiate issues of gender, and vent about their economic and social class anxieties.

The mask of anonymity can be a powerful tool for expression, but it also clearly has its tradeoffs. Wearing masks can help us “keep things real,” but while hidden behind anonymity, we can never truly meet each other face-to-face.

Provide a Pathway to Empathy

Table Tribes is a soon-to-be launched platform started by Hosan Lee, a fellow member of the Wisdom Hackers collective.

TableTribes is dedicated to creating a global network of sustainable empathy by empowering people with the ability to exchange ideas and share information face-to-face. By designing technology products and experiences that address the inherent day-to-day need to feel connected in the real world, our goal is to strengthen the broader impact individuals, families, communities and institutions can have on the people and places around them.

Table Tribes aims to create pathways to empathy by facilitating face-to-face conversations between strangers in physical proximity. The first Table Tribes product will be a geolocation-based mobile app that will connect people with others near them who want to have a conversation about a given topic or issue. Once connected online, the users can then meet up and have that conversation at a nearby coffeeshop or bar.

Like Meetup, Table Tribes uses the internet to get people offline and face-to-face. Table Tribes takes this idea further by using mobile geolocation to encourage more informal, ad hoc conversations between users, rather than the more formalized groups on Meetup.

Imagine taking a coffee break and using Table Tribes to connect with someone with a shared interest in discussing the public policy of alternative energy sources. You meet in person and have a lively, enriching debate. It could turn into more. Or it could just be a coffee break and a lively, enriching debate. But either way, through a conversation, a stranger became less strange.

Stay tuned for more from Table Tribes.

Level Up Your Skills

Talking to strangers takes courage and practice, and is not always something that works on the first try. But luckily, it is a skill that can be taught and learned. There has even been a masters-level course in the subject. In 2010, Kio Stark taught a course in “Stranger Studies” at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). The course draws upon elements from art, social science, performance studies, and interaction design. Stark has shared her curriculum online at The Atlantic, so we can all use it as a starting point to in our own independent study on talking to strangers and learning to design for civic conversations.

Hey Stranger.
Dear Reader.
Let’s Talk.