Connecting communities through a shared Global Heartbeat

While digital networks connect us, they have also led to the creation of isolating virtual communities. A new pilot project at the University of Michigan hopes to counteract the “cyber-balkanization” that has arisen with the proliferation of our digital gadgets by using text messaging to create a common experience.

"Global Heartbeat" is led by Kentaro Toyama, W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information. The author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Toyama has long sought ways for digital technology to be unifying, not individualistic. Toyama’s co-investigator on the project is Sophia Brueckner in the U-M Stamps School of Art and Design.

“The irony of our digital world is that we all share a common technology, but we are increasingly not sharing common experiences,” Toyama says. “Global Heartbeat seeks to counteract this tendency in a small but impactful way.” The two-year pilot project will be funded with a $100,000 grant from National Academy of Science and the Keck Foundation.

The long-term vision of “Global Heartbeat” is to develop a system that sends a single, curated message to every mobile phone in the world once a week, to create a small but globally shared experience using devices that people are already carrying.

In the pilot program, volunteers recruited at the University of Michigan and in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, will receive a text message once a week on their mobile phones. All participants will receive the same message at the same time. According to the researchers, this message will be emotion-laden: it could be funny, tragic, uplifting or even goofy. It may spark conversations between strangers as well as friends. The expectation is that, over time, the recipients will feel a sense of connection and community with all the others who share this experience.

After six months, participants will be surveyed to discover what impact the project has had and whether there has been a shift in awareness between the two communities toward common issues.

“Can a single message a week be enough to bring two communities together in terms of their awareness?” Toyama asks. “We hope to find out.”

Posted August 15, 2016