An apparent lack of friendliness among students has led Columbia University to initiate a competition. “The Social Experiment” is meant to foster interaction and friendships among undergraduates, with a grand prize of $500 meant to encourage students to participate. Although efforts to increase social interaction on large campuses are welcome, Columbia’s new experiment is the wrong approach because it could easily generate competitiveness instead of amiability. It is doubtful that such a contest will actually benefit those students who truly need help interacting with their peers.
The contest, which is sponsored by Columbia’s Residential Programs and will run for one week, is designed so that students must speak to each other if they wish to win. Certain individuals will be designated as “password holders” and each day a prompt will appear on the Social Experiment’s website. Students must tell the prompt to a “password holder” in exchange for a password; undergraduates then return to the website and type in all the passwords they’ve accumulated. The top 10 collectors will earn prizes and the winner will receive a $500 reward.
Although competitions can encourage people to work together, this particular approach is unlikely to foster any meaningful interactions. The proposed objective of the contest is to make friends, but some will likely choose to concentrate on winning the money instead. The competition creators run the risk that, rather than getting to know each other, students will focus solely on gathering passwords. With a hefty $500 prize in mind and multiple passwords to collect, students might limit any social interaction to the few words necessary to complete their objective.
The requisite prize money for The Social Experiment would be better spent on open, inter-dorm events, such as study breaks or ice cream socials. Students usually attend these low-key gatherings with the intention of meeting new people in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Students are likely to feel more confident when approaching their peers in laid-back events than in a high-pressure contest.
That said, we recognize that The Social Experiment is just a game, and we do not expect it to generate any truly negative repercussions. Furthermore, it is refreshing to see a college social initiative that does not depend solely on virtual interaction. In many popular online forums, like “Harvard FML” on our campus, students often post anonymous, negative comments instead of forging actual bonds with one another. Despite its flaws, Columbia’s social initiative is a welcome change from these prevalent Internet sites.
After freshman year it is easy for students to get stuck within their own social bubble, so we encourage both RAs and students at Columbia and other universities to test out different, innovative social experiments that do not simply revert to individual competition. One example is HarvardLunch, a recent initiative begun by a Harvard undergraduate that randomly pairs students up for platonic lunch dates. However, such opportunities should always be voluntary—like both HarvardLunch and The Social Experiment—since students should never feel forced to participate in such events or activities. Top-down social initiatives have no place on a college campus, as they would only alienate certain students.
A major part of the college experience is about forging meaningful friendships. This can be difficult for students who have trouble meeting new people, and the problem is intensified on large, unenclosed urban campuses like Columbia’s. While we welcome Columbia’s effort to help alleviate social angst among its students, undergraduates are better off making new friends in friendlier atmospheres where they can engage in meaningful conversations without the thought of a large cash prize on their minds.