<p>In <i>Social Turkers: Crowdsourced Relationships</i> Lauren McCarthy relies on the hive mind to make her decisions.</p>
You could say that the marrying of art and technology is at its most interesting when artists use it as a looking glass to refract and investigate human experiences, utilizing it in a way that explores our interactions with the world and other people. It’s in this fashion that artist Lauren McCarthy embarked on a highly personal project, called Social Turkers: Crowdsourced Relationships, where she used Amazon Mechanical Turk to crowdsource suggestions on what to say and do during a series of first dates with people she met on dating site OkCupid.
Mechanical Turk has been used many times before to create crowdsourced works of art, from Aaron Koblin‘s The Sheep Market to Clement Valla’s sketches. But it’s never been used before in such an intimate way, where someone opens up a very personal experience in their life and pays strangers to influence and determine the outcome.
You might ask why anyone would want to do such a thing, and it’s a fair question. For McCarthy, this is art as social experiment—she’s exploring how the hive mind can help augment and alter her experiences and “ultimately deepen social interaction.” Will a collective mind help her judge the people in a more accurate and better way? Can they help her break free of any prejudices or pre-conditioned mindsets she might have from past relationships and life experiences?
As McCarthy streams the dates in real-time using a phone camera, the Mechanical Turkers get to voyeuristically watch what’s happening and assess the situation. Then, using an iPhone app, they text in their thoughts, instructing McCarthy on what to do next by filling out a survey she composed for them. It’s like a crowdsourced Cyrano de Bergerac, where McCarthy is the puppet and the workers the puppet masters.
McCarthy’s honesty is what makes the project so interesting—openly documenting each interaction in a journal-like website, she reveals both her methodology and her unfiltered thoughts about the dates and the project itself. In one entry, terrified of going on her first date, a fear that’s coupled with the anxiety of meeting someone new (something McCarthy says is difficult for her) and the stress of trying out her experimental recording and feedback system for the first time, she reveals that she found a sense of comfort in knowing that the Turkers were there. “Oddly, knowing that the workers are watching me made me feel a sense of reassurance, like I'm not all alone in this situation.” she writes.
Sample of a Mechanical Turk survey
For McCarthy, who spent a month-long residency in Portland, Oregon to work on this project, going on a date every night for a month, the process was equal parts research and performance. After each awkward date, she would analyze the responses from the Mechanical Turk workers and try to tweak the process to make it more seamless, or improve the survey to make it more exact. Whereas before they might tell her to smile/laugh/disagree, now she they can tell her where to physically move: advance, side-step, back off, etc. While this may add an extra degree of specificity for the workers, it doesn’t make the dates go any better.
As the dates progress, McCathy’s subjective, private thoughts, insecurities and anxieties are contrasted with the objective analyses of the workers, who equally pick up on the fact that she seems uncomfortable and unrelaxed. And, as someone reading the date descriptions on her site, you the reader become a voyeur like the workers, casually experiencing her misadventures and vicariously going along for the emotional roller coaster ride.
For the workers (and, to some degree, the reader) it’s like front row seats at a show (but one they’re getting paid to see). Their role is one that’s participatory, however, and as the ones guiding the action they become invested in it… and the action doesn’t necessarily stop when the curtain closes.
“In some weird way, I've almost started to feel like they are my friends watching and helping me along on each date,” writes McCarthy. “They are the only ones that really know what I'm doing, they are my confidantes, my collaborators.” And so the workers offer up their emails and contact info so they can be updated on the progress of the project, which seems to be evolving into a curious paradox, an oxymoron of publicly shared intimacy.
Sample of the log from Mechanical Turk
As the performance goes on, McCarthy remarks on how the lines between reality and art begin to blur, “I no longer feel like just a character or an avatar; the distinction before between performance and reality gets blurrier for me.” And as she further experiments with the survey format and the nature of the experiment (at one point asking her date to ask questions to the hive, which is stopped short due to a technical hiccup), she begins to have some fun with it, asking the workers to vote or suggest lines for her to say—this she finds empowering, letting her break free of her restrictive behaviors. “Somewhere halfway through the date though, I realize I really can break out of myself a bit. The realization is overwhelmingly powerful.”
The last entry for the experiment is on the 28th January 2013, titled “Alone” and in it McCarthy reflects upon how the experiment has journeyed from something curious to fun to something that’s made her question her actions and the morality behind conducting it. “A friend of mine told me before I started that she doesn't do online dating anymore because she often found herself on dates feeling more alone than if she were by herself. I now understand completely. I've met so many people desperately searching for the one. I feel bad when I don't like them, I feel bad when I do—I feel like such a disappointment every time. I find myself relying on the workers to stave off the feelings of isolation on the worst of dates.”
In this same entry, McCarthy talks again about the workers constantly reflecting on how uncomfortable McCarthy seems during the dates: nervous, anxious, existentially pained. “I have systematically disrupted all my systems for understanding myself and the context I operate in.” she says. And in the end, there’s a sadness and loneliness attached to the whole thing, a sense of isolation where McCarthy comes to value the relationship with her Mechanical Turkers over ones with the actual people she meets. So, in a way, she’s both failed and succeeded in her goal to explore how technology can ultimately deepen social interaction.