This Social Experiment Used Free Wi-Fi To Try To Get People To Interact In Real Life

“Before providing you with our free Wi-Fi code, you must first have a conversation with three strangers.”

If you happened to be at certain San Francisco coffee shops a few weeks ago, you might have noticed a new sign: “Before providing you with our free Wi-Fi code, you must first have a conversation with three strangers.”


The signs were part of an experiment from artist Ivan Cash and filmmaker Michael Reiner, who covertly slipped them into cafes to see how people would react.

“Basically it started with a super simple insight–that Wi-Fi connects people around the world, but it can distance people sitting next to each other,” says Reiner. “We both spend a lot of time working in cafes, and anytime you look up from your screen, it’s impossible not to notice all the people around you who are just totally immersed in technology. This just felt like a really nice way to push back, challenge the way things are, and also have fun with it.”

Because the experiment wasn’t sanctioned by any of the coffee shops, most of the signs didn’t stay up very long, though they did occasionally confuse employees. A sign at a Starbucks counter stayed in place for 15 minutes.

“Everyone who got their drinks stopped to look and read the sign, and eventually the barista took note and picked it up, looked at it, shared it with the other barista–it seemed like they were a little confused about whether this was a new Starbucks policy that they didn’t know about, or exactly what was going on,” he says.

Patrons reacted in very different ways as Reiner and Cash stuck the signs next to their tables. “Some people were super excited about it and gave us high-fives,” he says. “Some were a little bit annoyed, I would say. Some didn’t even look up from their screens.”

The filmmakers are hoping that their social experiment inspires some businesses to actually change their Wi-Fi policies and bring some human interaction back to cafes.


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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.