See What a Stranger Sees for Twenty Days

Rather than the highly-curated social media profile, 20 Day Stranger wants to show you the boring bits of someone else’s life

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We tend to present idealized versions of ourselves to social media. C.J. Burton/Corbis

Envy, said Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker last year, citing recent research, “increases with Facebook use: the more time people spent browsing the site, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt.”

The effect, suggested Hanna Krasnova and her colleagues, was a result of the well-known social-psychology phenomenon of social comparison. It was further exacerbated by a general similarity of people’s social networks to themselves: because the point of comparison is like-minded peers, learning about the achievements of others hits even harder.

Photo streams, status updates, Tweets and life logs make it easier than ever to see into the lives of our friends. The side effect of that, suggests Fast Company, is that we have an amazing understanding of how people just like us choose to present their lives, but little sense of how people unlike us actually live.

To counter this tunnel vision, a team of researchers is working on an experimental social media app that, rather than showing us the best of our friends' lives, gives us the drab details of the life of a stranger. The app, called 20 Day Stranger, pairs the user up with an anonymous stranger and then feeds them glimpses of each other's lives.

The app was designed by a team at the MIT Media Lab in conjunction with the school's Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, says Fast Company. The designers are aiming to “breed empathy by giving a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else. The coordinators are recruiting people from around the world, so each person can pair with someone far away both geographically and from their social circle.”

Using the app is not unlike having a pen pal, but requires much less effort. The app uses the abundance of data being generated by existing technology—GPS signals, Foursquare check-ins and publicly available photographs—to gift the user a virtual stalker (and to let them stalk someone else). The information remains anonymous—it's just a little window into someone else's goings-on.

As a matter of technical feasibility, right now the app only works for people with iPhones, a constraint which puts obvious limits of just how different a life your stranger partner will have.

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