On the first of January this year, I was on Twitter. This is not in any way unusual, because at any given moment in the last three years that I have had Twitter, I am 80% likely to be on it at any given moment. However, on this particular New Year’s Day, I received the following tweet from comedian Alex Horne:
Now, I am a curious sort of chap (curious as in inquisitive, not curious as in odd), and if there’s one thing I love, it’s a social experiment. Thus, I signed up without hesitation (along with a couple of my friends who also follow Alex) and received this tweet a bit later.
As well as a curious sort of chap, I am also an incredibly trusting sort of chap, so I sent my address along, and pretty much forgot all about it after that point. Indeed, it appeared that Alex had done so too, as I heard nothing from him for a while. Once or twice in the ensuing months, I saw a tweet from him apologising to everyone for the delay and saying that the “experimental packages” were being slowly rolled out, but it was a very logistic-y project to organise. I didn’t at that point know exactly what the experiment was, but now I do I can safely say that this is understandable.
Fast forward to three weeks ago, and my stepfather tells me a package came in the mail, but because the postage hadn’t been paid on it they couldn’t deliver it. I had totally forgotten about the experiment by now, and had no idea what the package might be; nobody had told me they were sending me anything, and I had ordered nothing online. We debated whether it was worth paying the £1.50 to get it, since it could be something totally uninteresting, but we decided we would go to collect it anyway. When we got to the collecting place and asked to have it, we were faced with an A4 envelope with my own name written upon it in scratchy handwriting.
Upon opening it, I found three things; a letter, a stamped addressed envelope, and another, sightly smaller, parcel. The letter, which I noticed was from Alex and got very excited about, told me all about what he was testing.
You probably know about the six degrees of separation theory; the idea that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else (through a “friend-of-a-friend” type thing) in six or fewer steps. Alex explained that this theory was first put forward in the 1920s, when less than 2 billion people inhabited the Earth. Now that there are more than 7 billion, he wants to know if it’s still a small world.
I was given the name of a man, and the city in Ghana he inhabits: Kumasi. I was told a little about his wife, what she does, and the names of his three children, and that was it. My mission, he told me, was to pass this package (the smaller one inside the original) to this man, in six or fewer steps. I wasn’t allowed to look him up online, or research the place, and I had to send it to somebody I certainly knew, but other than that I could use whatever means I liked. Within the smaller package, I found, was another even smaller one, and within that, another, and so on, for six packages. The idea is that each participant will take off one layer of the package, read the (almost identical) letter with instructions, and eventually make it to this man. I was to use the SAE to update Alex with where I’d sent it, and each other participant would do that too.
Not a small task, as you can imagine.
I immediately started looking round for potential links. I first asked my dad, who has been to Africa a few times, but he had no idea who he’d send it to. He suggested to me that I ask Margaret, a friend of his and someone who I’ve known for a long time; long enough to certainly count as a connection. She may have known somebody in that region, but we never got round to actually asking her, because last week I saw this Facebook status from her, saying she was packing to go to a Ghana EPA conference for a week.
And, in my own inimitable way, I ignored it. It totally failed to register with me, in the way that so much content on Facebook does. A whole opportunity to jump a massive geographical barrier of my mission, and I missed it.
Or at least, I would’ve done, if my dad hadn’t noticed it later that afternoon, and pointed my attention that way. Excitedly, I went down to her house (she only lives what the Americans would call “a block” away) and after explaining to her that it wasn’t an elaborate drug-smuggling operation, she agreed to take it. Excitedly, I awaited news from her about the fate of the package; despite being in the same country, there may still be some way to go. Last Friday, I received this:
I was overjoyed- in just two steps we had made it to the city that it needed to be in! From there it was likely to be pretty plain sailing, though I probably wouldn’t hear about the package’s eventual fate. That’s okay, though; I think that it’s exactly that which attracts me to social experiments like this. It’s the idea of being a part of something bigger, and the idea that in the huge complicated machine of the experiment (and, I guess, the world), you made a difference. It’s quite exciting, and I want to be part of more.
However, since we can’t all sit around waiting for social experiments to spring up around us, I might try and make my own. I haven’t a clue what I’ll test, or even if I’ll be testing anything or just having fun with the power of many. I have a notebook spare (I ALWAYS have a notebook spare), so some kind of collaborative writing project would be exciting. What I really want is ideas from you; last week I said I wanted this blog to be a two-way thing, so please leave a comment of some kind with a suggestion of what we can do with it, or with anything else.
I was going to go on about so much more (including the amazing Lycoris Letters project, which is also exploring this power), but I think that will do for tonight. Thanks for reading.