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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

Take back the night: Are we retreating away from tech to smaller social circles?

  1. A seven-person "Death Over Dinner" discussion group (complete with pre-requisite reading assignments and a discussion list)

  2. A cell-phone free improv rap show through Freestyle Love Supreme

  3. A home-cooked dinner, anti-SXSW apartment party in NYC for about a dozen people

  4. An "improv for business" event for ~35 people, hosted on a Friday night

  5. An evening salon event at someone's home with an intimate crowd and a Q&A with an author

  6. A small, all-ladies negotiation workshop led by a facilitator (again, hosted at someone's home, including tea, drinks, and puppies)

  7. An evening book club of ~8 people, which (let's be honest) was less about the book and more about the discussion

  8. A literal "Challah Bake" event, complete with kneading dough and small-group discussions with new friends / strangers What's interesting about all of these events is that they are not only intentionally small and controlled in size, but also intentionally technology-light (or in most cases, technology free). There were no Instagram hashtag walls, no funny props for poses, and at most of the events that I was able to attend, phones tended to be an afterthought, as opposed to a prerequisite for enjoying the day. (Compare this, for instance, to Rosé Mansion, a venue in NYC literally dedicated to taking the best Instagram pictures possible, complete with a bathtub full of roses, a chandelier from which to dangle, and arty rooms of all colors and styles.) It's possible that the winter blues just have New Yorkers down a little, and we're opting for indoor events as we hunker down in the cold, as opposed to the beach-party, showy stuff of summers. Sure. Or maybe it's possible that we're slowly shifting priorities, starting with how we spend our nights and weekends. Maybe we're starting to see the shift away from "all tech, all the time" as we begin to realize the deleterious effects of the "always on" culture 24/7, Monday through Friday. What I've enjoyed about each of these different events that I've had the privilege to attend has been how quickly the room and the people conformed to the "new world order" of rules, even without explicitly saying so. At "Death Over Dinner," for instance, everyone who joined for dinner had already agreed to a pre-determined social contract: We are here to talk about a topic that many people might find uncomfortable. You are expected to have done 45 minutes of reading / prep work before attending. Everyone is expected to participate. As soon as everyone arrived, the conversation almost immediately settled down onto the host, who had prepared a short list of questions and a few guidelines for the night. "So," he began, "Does anyone have a story they'd like to share about someone whose death you've either experienced or have been thinking about lately?" (Talk about a new icebreaker.) At Freestyle Love Supreme's improv rap show, an event conceptualized by Anthony Veneziale, Thomas Kail, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the social contract you sign upon entry is that you'll be 100% present, 100% of the time. Right on the website, a disclaimer reads: "Freestyle Love Supreme will be a phone-free experience. Upon arrival guests must secure all phones, smart watches, etc., in a lockable YONDR pouch that will remain in their possession throughout the performance." What you get is a feeling of wonder and full-on engagement and participation in what you know to be a unique, untaped experience. When something amazing happens on stage (so, every 30 seconds), even if you feel the impulse to reach in your pocket to grab your phone, there's nothing you can do about it. It's a new way of conditioning us to break our bad habits. And while the Challah Bake event was hosted at a tech startup, like many events I typically attend on weeknights, the vibe when you entered the room was completely different. The tables in the cafeteria had been lined with tablecloths, decked out with baking supplies, and an open invitation to "sit wherever" and make new friends along the way. By the end of the evening, I not only had acquired a new skill, but a new perspective -- not to mention a technology and relatively booze-free way of connecting with New Yorkers (many of whom lived in my own neighborhood). I like to think that these events are part of a larger social pattern, in which people are retreating from that "share out to the masses" mentality, and instead spending more time in smaller communities, allowing for better conversation, more candor, and even more #realtalk, if you will. There's something more authentic and honest about a moment or an evening spent without the expectation that every second will be recorded, catalogued, and shared out publicly later. It lets people let their guard down a bit more. It allows us all to be a little less socially focused and status-obsessed. In the end, I believe it helps us keep our humanity a little bit more. So is this trend just the starting point of a larger migration away from untrusted online social platforms? A backlash against the shallow nature of social media as a whole? Or simply a way to bide our time during the cold, snowy season until spring invites us back out to rooftops and patios once more? Who's to say? But if you'd like to invite me over to a salon to talk more about this with you and some close friends, I'm all ears.

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