Interactive Artist Explores "Human Connection" in the Digital Space

It seems appropriate that I forgot my cell phone, my laptop and my camera's memory card when I attended a session on "Human Connection: The Ultimate Digital Currency" at the SXSW Interactive festival this week. I was very much disconnected, in the analog sense.

As he began his presentation, SXSW presenter Ivan Cash invited the audience to sit closer to the front of the room, no doubt an attempt to create more intimacy in an otherwise impersonal environment. He asked us to look up at the "magnificent chandelier" hanging in the middle of the room--something I wouldn't have noticed if he didn't ask. Had I brought my cell phone, my eyes would have been focused on my screen, not the ceiling.

Is this what human connection feels like? I thought. Being completely aware of the people and things around you, without the distractions of tweets, texts, check-ins and status updates?

Cash is an interactive artist and filmmaker who runs his own creative studio and consultancy in San Francisco. For the past three years, he has been freelancing for projects at the intersection of technology, advertising and art. He said he noticed a pattern among his clients: they want to engage people.

But what does this elusive concept of "engagement" really mean? Cash points out that it can include small portions of media buys, focus groups, user experience design, technology and social media. But he prefers to define it as "becoming intimate, becoming a friend." At the base of the proverbial food pyramid of engagement, then, is human connection.

Cash presented a handful of his projects that attempt to create authentic engagement.

His Last Photo video series asks strangers to share the story behind the last photo on their phone. While it may seem like an invasion of privacy, he said, strangers are usually happy to share details from their personal lives--from a widow's heartfelt visit to her late husband's gravestone, to a friend's ridiculous inside joke about cat poop. In this case, talking to strangers becomes a proxy for human connection.

When working at Wieden + Kennedy, Cash created the highly successful Coca-Cola Sitelets. It gave fans of the well-loved brand a simple fun experience by directing them to riddles, games and animations via Facebook. Nothing more. And it paid off. One simple status update became Coca-Cola's most engaging Facebook post ever at the time, in 2011, with nearly 50,000 likes and 12,000 comments.

At the end of the day, he reminded the audience, consumers are people, and "people appreciate when you're real with them and treat them with respect," Cash said.

His Snail Mail My Email project connects people through the age-old art of letterwriting. His volunteers handwrite and illustrate strangers' emails and send physical letters to the recipients, free of charge. The project now includes 234 volunteers who have written 10,457 letters to people in 70 countries. It has been turned into a book and lives on as a weeklong letter writing event in the fall.

His open-source Passenger Project is a social experiment that connects passengers on the same airplane flight through participatory art. They are given simple instructions to draw or fill-in-the-blank, and the results are co-created mini-masterpieces, revealing the desires and personalities of strangers sharing the same experience.

What it taught him is that "people are capable of so much more than a share, like or tweet; they just need to be empowered," he said.

The final project he shared, Selfless Portraits, asks strangers to draw each other's Facebook profile pictures. The collaborative art project brings people together through personal expression and creativity.

Cash has created several other projects that connect people at a one-to-one level, and he has also experimented with larger social impact campaigns, such as Occupy George, which circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics about America's economic disparity.

Wary of the risk of "death by committee," which so often exists within bureaucratic organizations, Cash said he prefers working with small and nimble groups to create change.

In the end, I captured Cash's talk with pen and paper, dodging the perils of electronic multi-tasking. His session was one of the more memorable ones I attended. Being unplugged definitely had its advantages.