Saturday, February 27, 2010

Two Degrees of Separation

In such a small environment as BYU, the average student is likely to cross several people that they know any time they walk across campus. Friends, coworkers, ex-girlfriends, old bosses – indeed, it seems that people run across fill the entire gamut from best of friends down to one notch above strangers in any given stroll.

I approached several people I knew and challenged them to a game, saying that I would follow them across campus to their eventual destinations. If they came across someone they knew, they got a point. If they could convince that person to take a picture with them, an additional point. If the found acquaintance remembered my subject's name, another point. With each round, I added more conditions. What I discovered is that the more rules I gave, sometimes paradoxically, the more information I received. The points meant nothing, as there was no prize, but the more points I offered the more information they willingly volunteered. As I upped the ante and made it into a competition ("I'll bet you I know more people than you do"), the more obsessed people were with sharing with me.

Chapter 1

Opponent: Mike
Departure: Snell Building
Destination: Brimhall Building
Rule: Points if you can get people you know to take a picture with you

"One point for me." – We had only just crossed the street, and in the distance, Mike had seen Élise coming down the hill. She almost refused the picture until we told her Mike would be in it, too.

Chapter 2
Opponent: Amy
Departure: Jesse Knight Building
Destination: Benson Building
New Rule: Extra points if you can tell me where you know them from

"He seemed nice" I offered after we continued on our way. Backstory - This guy is in her ward, from what I gather. Interestingly, he lent his crêpe pan to Amy's apartment when they had a crêpe party. When he came back later, they told him to just grab his out of the kitchen. He went into the kitchen and merely stared at the two crêpe pans that were sitting there for an uncomfortably long period of time. "How do you not know which pan is yours?" Amy asked me in retrospect. "They looked totally different!" My attempts to explain that perhaps he'd never really paid attention to what it looked like, focusing more on function than form, seemed to do little to justify his actions in her eyes.

Chapter 3
Opponents: Seth and Mike
Departure: Herald R. Clark Building
Destination: Law Building
New Rule: It's now a competition between me and them to see who knows more people.

"Sure I'll take a picture with you, Seth! Hold my bag..."

This mysterious girl called out to Mike from across the street. "Point for you?" I asked. "I have no idea who that is!" He gets no points for her, though I was kind enough not to take away points from him for it.

Mike and Seth also ran across an old classmate. Mike knew his first and last name, and asked him (I quote), "So are you reproducing yet?" I had to ask him later, "did he get married while you were in the same class or something? Why that question?" Mike's response: "Yes, but the question's valid for anyone, really." I didn't see the ring until looking at the photo later.

Chapter 4
Opponent: Randy
Departure: Jesse Knight Building
Destination: Herald R. Clark Building
New Rule: You can pick your path to your advantage.

"Wow, I didn't think I'd run into anyone I knew. That guy was in the other stake in my home town, I'm glad I remembered his name and that he even recognized me." Despite walking through the building where he teaches, right before his class, he didn't run across any of his students.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7
Opponent: Neil
Departures: Snell Building, Lee Library, Joseph Smith Building
Destination: Lee Library, Joseph Smith Building, Wilkinson Center
New Rule: Though you can pick your own path, you must remain outside during competition

"Sure, you guys can take a picture with me." No points for either of us, since Andrew is a mutual acquaintance.

I won 3 to 2, which upset Neil. Upon reaching the library (his destination), he decided "I don't feel like going to the Library. Rematch!" And so we headed to the JSB.

Three points for me. This really had a profound effect upon Neil's competitiveness. After falling so far behind in round 2, he went nuts, increasingly scraping every possible memory to find faces he recognized.

She sings in women's chorus, he sings in men's chorus. Pretty straight-forward. I'd have pressed him for details, but he was immediately onto the next target.

"Hey, how's it going?" Blank stare. Slowly, her face warms up as she seems to remember him. "I'm Neil, weren't we in [Class] together?" "Yah! How's it going?" "Good! can I take a picture with you?"

"Hey!" "Um... ohh... hi." I kid you not, this is a girl he met on a rainy day 4-5 months ago. "I was ducking through the basement of some building to get out of the rain on my way home, and I came across her. She was doing janitorial work, and I ended up talking to her for a half hour."

Round 2 was a tie. But since I was headed back to the Wilkinson Center anyway to find a new friend to challenge, he INSISTED we go for one more.

She is his 3 time ex-fiancée. Remarkably, they're still friends. And with this photo, he wins the round. There were other photos from this round, of little comparative interest. I declared him the winner. I'm not sure he'd have let me go if I hadn't, to be honest.

Chapter 7: Standing Still
Opponent: Susan
Departure and Destination: In front of the Library
New Rule: No moving. We stayed in front of the library.

Austin is her visiting-teachee's fiancé. I sold his brother a computer. He also used to stand next to me in choir, 10 years ago when we were in High School in Northern California (he's no longer a tenor). He was once the fiancé of my wife's former roommate. He was also in my wife's best friend's husband's sister's husband's freshman intramural sports team. No Really. He appears in my life every couple of years. Nice guy.

Susan found 3 others, but this one I show you because she said "I felt most comfortable taking the photo with my former student," and yet this is easily the most awkward of the batch. Her dance teacher, a former classmate, and an old friend all took photos with her within a 10 minute period of time, but those pictures are of no interest, as they're all smiling nicely.

Chapter 8:
Opponent: Ben
Departure: Jesse Knight Building
Destination: Testing Center
New Rule: "Yes this poster counts. I'm not against winning at all costs."

I can't be 100% certain, but this 'Sterling' fellow looks remarkably like someone who was in a theater class I took 6 years ago. He wrote and starred in a humorous one-act play about how he blamed himself as a child for his whole family dying when they fled Cuba, and in every case the death was caused indirectly by him having forgotten to wear his pantalones that morning. I write this because it is the perfect end to the experience. After two days of hunting in crowds for people I knew, every face held traits that seemed familiar. The experience of "do I know him? Yes? YES?!?! No..." seemed common to most all of the people I walked with.

In the end, I realized that everyone I knew on campus (with the exception of Austin, who pops back into my life every few years) is through my French degree. Either classmates, professors, or students of mine. I feel comparatively anti-social compared to Neil, for example, who seems to know people from everywhere.

When I ponder upon people like Austin, it makes me realize how inter-connected we are, and how many ways I know him. I didn't know many of the people my subjects did, but I wonder how many other connections to them I could find if I tried.


  1. I think I would lose your game since I don't know anybody at all... I like your project because it shows how small out world can be.

  2. This isn't so much a comment on your project, but I have to say that I kind of want to turn this project into a constant game. I love it. I love how these photos seem to really capture everyone's personality, too.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hilarious. Thank you for putting one of my favorite games to play into photos...

  5. I really like how the pictures capture personality, but before you explained it in class the idea kind of confused me.