Charlie Table is a social dining app that allows 4 strangers with similar interests to get together for dinner and engage in meaningful conversations. Charlie Table started as a project between friends at NYU Abu Dhabi who wanted to help bridge new or weak ties in large migrant communities.
As the world becomes more mobile, technology plays a larger role in helping new migrant population in both maintaining existing relationships and making new ones. According to the International Migrations Report by the United Nations, the number of international migrants — persons living in a country other than where they were born — reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, a 41% increase from 2000. The fluidity of population movement across countries appears to be both the motivation for and the consequence of growing prevalence of online communication and social media services. For example, according to We Are Social research, worldwide social media penetration has increased from 22% in 2012 to 37% in 2017.
The importance of using technology to stay connected is, therefore, very visceral for the nomadic population, including the students at NYU Abu Dhabi. NYU Abu Dhabi has 1,250 undergraduate students from more than 115 countries, meaning that more than 85% of the student body are foreigners - or ‘expat students’ - who leave existing communities to create an entirely new social network on this campus. This percentage approximately mirrors the migrant population in the UAE as a whole, which has more than 85% foreign-born nationals in its entire population.
On this campus specifically, social media and messaging apps are integral parts of student life, not just for staying connected with family and friends at home but also for engaging with campus life activities and discussions. To have a better understanding of how the hyper-connected and hyper-mobile students utilize technology for social interactions, I interviewed seven classmates, of age 20-23, 4 males and 3 females, all from different countries, on their use of social media and messaging apps. Some questions I asked them were:
What’s your habit of staying online?
- Why do you use Facebook, instagram, snapchat on this campus?
- What kind of content do you see on your feed and what excites you the most?
- Do you ever find social media to be more disconnecting in real life?
- Have you ever met new people online then met offline and what is the motivation for doing so?
- Do you get increasing amount of your social interactions online than offline?
For all of them, messaging apps such as Messenger and WhatsApp were all important tools to stay connected to their family and friends back home. Messaging was less frequent with physically distant relationships than with friends on campus, while voice and video calling were more frequent. One friend said ‘spending half an hour of dedicated time to phone or video call was way more significant with texting’ despite less frequency, as it better emulates face-to-face intimacy. Two friends specifically mentioned how the range of apps they used for communication has narrowed down from freshman to senior year. They both taught their family members in Hungary and Nepal how to use Facebook Messenger calls, instead of using Skype or Google Hangout that they also used a few years ago. For three friends, WhatsApp was still the main means of communication with family members as it is in their respective countries.
While the messenger feature of Facebook was universally used, all seven people tried to curb overall time spent on Facebook and Instagram feeds. It was interesting that they didn’t consider Facebook social or personal but rather the opposite; they considered it a distraction, campus news source, or work-related. Four of them commented on how their little usage of Facebook often made them feel disconnected from what’s happening on campus, despite its small size. One person said ‘I would not use Facebook if half or more of my friends didn’t use it; it’s only because of the network.’
Different social media services served distinct purposes for most of them. While Facebook was most valuable for its messaging feature, Instagram was often mentioned as a personal photo journal, inspiration, and updating and staying updated about a more intimate group of friends. For example, a friend from Kenya talked about how she started following African natural hair influencers on Instagram, which led to increasing exposure to various ‘Americanah’ accounts and social movements of young professional African diaspora. She said it has significantly influenced her motivation to move back home after graduation as she became aware of new opportunities through social media.
Having an online presence has therefore facilitated much more than maintaining existing strong ties. Many of them have used social media, online dating apps and Meetup to create new social connections in their new living environments. One friend from the UAE, for example, has had Twitter since around 2010, when there was only a very small Emirati twitter user base. She specifically referred to it as a Twitter community, as everyone knew of each other. It was a new observation that intimacy could be formed between anonymous users on a public platform thanks to a small number in somewhat confined geographical boundary. Think Up GCC, for example, was able to organize an organic, offline gathering of youth Emirati volunteers through this Twitter community to clean up the Sheikh Zayed highway after the national day celebration. At the same time, one friend said that she would never meet people online then offline as she doesn’t trust people that way.
On a broader context of Abu Dhabi, I also questioned how new migrants try to find communities online. I looked specifically at Meetup.com, which is a very popular and widely used medium here and contacted organizers of popular groups. The questions I asked them were:
- What makes a meetup event successful?
- How do you measure a meetup’s success?
- What motivates people to attend meetup events?
- How do individuals meet one another at meetups?
Abu Dhabi Speaks is a meetup group with more than 2,000 members that hosts languages and culture exchange sessions where any members come to meet new people and chat in different languages. Mohamed, the organizer, believes that because Abu Dhabi is a multi-cultural city, a language and cultural exchange events attract a lot of people, thus the nature of the city itself being an important factor for the meetup’s success. He also believes that the hard work from organizers is key to success, as the friendly atmosphere is a huge motivation for members to not only attend but also return to Abu Dhabi Speaks. Ayat, the organizer of Abu Dhabi Sisterhood and Empowerment Meetup said that the largest motivation for members is loneliness as an expatriate woman needing to meet like-minded women and making friends. Her meetup events are organized around conversation topics, which are chosen by the members’ consensus in their WhatsApp group. Like Mohamed, she also commented on the importance of the moderator’s role in facilitating a welcoming environment and conversations as well as basic introductions at the beginning of every event.
Based on the observations made from surveying both expatriate student and worker populations in Abu Dhabi, I wanted to build a project that makes building new offline connections for both personal and professional reasons easier and more meaningful. The project started with a question of how we could systemize meeting strangers with similar interests and having meaningful conversations with them. The application would not assume intimacy or romantic involvement that online dating apps entail, while having a more personal and engaged interactions than conferences, networking, or company events.
Charlie Table is a web app for systematic discovery and engagement with ‘absent ties’ that share similar interests, over dinners. The idea is to enable easy scheduling of dinner events between four people with some shared interests. For example, a user can decide to host a dinner event at a popular Ethiopian restaurant in the city with conversation topics of travel, software engineering, and spirituality. Other users who are interested in some or all of the conversation topics as well as dining at this restaurant can then RSVP to the event. First four people to confirm would then be notified and gather for the dinner. Prior to the event, the app will then provide users with sample ice breaker or conversation starter questions to aid the first-time meeting of these members.
There were multiple assumptions made at the beginning of the the project, the largest being that people are willing to meet strangers for dinner. While perceived isolation from wider use of social media as well as difficulty of adjusting to a new environment after relocation may be widely known consequences of today’s increasingly connected and mobile generation, it is harder to quantify willingness to build more weak ties. The assumption that people will overcome the proposed benefit of engaging in these dinners will far outweigh the costs of motivating oneself to meet new people in a more intimate setting is definitely to be tested.
The technical prototype of the project was designed and built as a team effort between four students. The project is a web application built on React and Firebase and utilizes third party APIs like Zomato to pull in localized restaurant information for each city. The current version supports user authentication, profile creation, creating and browsing dining events, and RSVP feature for each event. As a team, we each took on a scene, or page, of the application and implemented required components to make it functional. We had a weekly release cycle over a course of four weeks and documented the process using Projects on our Github repository.
The ideal goal would be for the mission to be self-sustainable - users would start hosting and facilitating real, offline dinners that could form new connections between random social networks. The app could not only be used for networking purposes but for building meaningful social interactions that could satisfy real social needs of increasingly digital population. Building human relationships is unpredictable and challenging, and the increasing effort to replace this social element with predictable and easily removable digital interactions on Snapchat and Instagram seems ultimately futile. Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, defines physical space as ‘a place used to comprise a physical space and the people within it.’ The permeation of social media and expansion of digital in this physical space however challenges this definition when people may be physically present but mentally absent. I hope that through engendering new connections between strangers in an offline space through Charlie Table could be an answer to a more meaningful and social physical space for the increasingly nomadic population.
After building a functional prototype, I conducted some user tests and gave presentations to a larger audience. The positive feedback I received was that many of them would be willing to use it, especially as they are about to move away from Abu Dhabi to settle in completely new locations. At the same time, many commented on how the current app does not describe the details of how the offline interactions would take place. Especially since there is no one moderator, as in Meetup, at every event, the real conversations may be awkward or unstructured. Adding an extra layer of ‘humanness’ to the app seems critical, as it would play a critical role in converting online activity to actual offline interactions. To improve the overall product design, I want to focus on integrating following values into future features:
- Making dinner events more approachable and friendly through personal confirmations, reminders, Google calendar invite, directions, chat with other participants who are also attending
- Having a review system of people or events
- Understanding how much random chance in matching affects conversations