Familiar strangers


You get the tram, tube, train to work everyday about the same time everyday. You sit in the same seat everyday or at least the same rough area each day. When looking up from your tablet one day you notice the same street signs and same landscape before looking down again. When shifting your position you brush against another human. That human is a familiar stranger. She or He always seems to be sitting next or opposite you. Not in a creepy way or even stalker way, just happens your paths in life seem to overlap on the Tram to MediaCity every morning at 0935. You don’t communicate verbally but once in a while may nod or awkwardly grin at each other.

I like most people have had this before but unlike most will throw caution to the wind and just say hi or something like that, maybe make a joke about the fact we see each other everyday. There was/is a Irish lady who gets the same tram as myself and we work a couple floors apart. We would get into the same lift each morning and not really say anything. Then over months of catching the same tram and the same lift, we finally would at least smile. Can’t remember who broke the silence first (I assume it was myself) we got talking. Hellos at first and now full conversations in the limited time we had.

Interesting side to the story was having her introducing myself to the BBC writers room which led on to us creating Perceptive Media’s first drama Breaking Out. So there is clearly a lot of positive greatness in these familiar strangers around you. Maybe one reason why the coffee shop is a great implicit creative sponge.

These Familiar strangers have been known to have a great bearing on our lives, Stanley Milgram (famous for the smallworld experiments)has papers going back to the 1970’s on  that. But whats interesting recently is the same kind of research into real social networks scaled over a whole city like Singapore. And like I suspected in my serendipity post, the unintentional or

These people are the bedrock of society and a rich source of social potential as neighbours, friends, or even lovers.

But while many researchers have studied the network of intentional links between individuals—using mobile-phone records, for example—little work has been on these unintentional links, which form a kind of hidden social network.

Today, that changes thanks to the work of Lijun Sun at the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore and a few pals who have analysed the passive interactions between 3 million residents on Singapore’s bus network (about 55 per cent of the city’s population).  ”This is the first time that such a large network of encounters has been identied and analyzed,” they say.

The results are a fascinating insight into this hidden network of familiar strangers and the effects it has on people.

Amazing stuff right? Without going all Jason Silva on you, I love this final part of the post about the paper… Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1301.5979: Understanding Metropolitan Patterns of Daily Encounters

For the ordinary commuter, it is a refreshing reminder that we are all part of an important network that we know little about. Next time you see a familiar stranger, you can be sure you have much in common in terms of your spatial and temporal behaviour patterns. Why not introduce yourself and see what happens?

Yes what have you to loose? Or better still what have you to gain and share? Who knows where your daily encounters might take you…

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.