Posts Tagged ‘social engineering’

Social Engineering: Mystery Guest Events

December 21, 2008

Market failure makes me sad. Surplus stolen. Transaction thwarted. As Pareto would say: “Inefficient!”

There are few more persistent market failures I can think of in my daily life than social interaction. I like meeting new people. You like meeting new people. But…. put us in the same room and chances are we won’t meet.

Why not?

Say we are at a party standing on opposite sides of the room. There are three reasons we WON’T talk to each other. Let’s call these the “Three Why Nots“:

Why Not 1) Randomness: Do I want to meet this person? Is this person actually worth my effort?
Why Not 2) Uncertain intention: Does that person want to meet me / anyone?
Why Not 3) Initiative: One of us has to “make a move”

In economics language the first two “Why Nots” are instances of information asymmetry: Each party not knowing exactly what the other is offering and what the other is seeking. The third Why Not is an example of a transaction cost: The “transaction” of us meeting incurs a cost of one of us having to introduce ourselves, which causes discomfort.

Transaction costs and information asymmetries are well-established culprits in causing market failures. But fortunately, economists have devised a few ways to overcome these barriers. I have become increasingly interested in using social engineering and the economic principles of “signaling” and “screening” to devise ways to vanquish the Three Why Nots. Here’s one example (also see Building a Better Bar).


“Mystery Guest” Events: Using signaling to overcome informational asymmetries and reduce transaction costs. I will describe two below.

(Like most edgy / genius ideas, this one came from Julia N.)

The Mystery Guest Dinner went like this: Julia, a third friend and I (the Hosts) each invited one friend that the others do not know (the Mystery Guests). The six people have a meal out. Each person either meets 2 or 4 new people that night.


The Mystery Guest Mixer went like this: Julia and I each asked 5 -7 of our friends that the other did not know (the Agents) to invite 2-3 of their friends (the Mystery Guests) to a wine cocktail party in my apartment. The result is a room full of people who know at most 4 other people (hosts excluded), but everyone knows at least one.



The elements shared by each event are a) no one knows anyone, b) everyone KNOWS that everyone wants to meet people, and c) each guest is hand-picked.

Let’s look at how these events help weaken the “Three Why Nots”

“Uncertain Intention” is easily overcome by d). Everyone in the room is there with the same intention and, just as importantly, everyone is aware of that fact. Compare this to a bar where a fraction of people are there to meet others and it is difficult to identity who is and who isn’t.

“Randomness” is also somewhat blunted by the invite-only premise of the event (c). You are maximum 4 degrees of separation from anyone in the room. And there is a strong social incentive to bring fun / cool / interesting / compatible Mystery Guests. Chances are good the Mystery Guests are worth your time.

“Initiative” is forced by a).There is no one to sit in the corner with! You have no choice but to talk to others. And it’s easier to meet others when everyone else is doing the same.

Overall, the events were a success. Everyone enjoyed themselves and I would guess most still have contact with at least one person they met that night. Compare that to your last night out in the Meatpacking.

Reader, I ask two things of you. Comment / email me more ideas to outmaneuver the “Three Why Nots.” And also email me if you want in on the next Mystery Guest event.

Building a better bar

March 15, 2008

Of all the components of a New York, professional life the one that has most consistently fallen short of expectations is my weekend nightlife. This smacks of confession of inner failing — something that belongs on Group Hug instead of this esteemed space. But I suspect I’m not alone here. Don’t get me wrong: I have plenty of fun on weekends. It’s simply a matter of unfair expectations consistently unmet.

Or high expectations aside: $50 spent, 7 hard-earned hours consumed, and a that freshly “hit by bus” feeling Sunday morning. Is it unreasonable to expect significant returns on that investment?

If this forum was about cool rationality, this post would be about those unfair expectations and moderation. But it’s not, so let’s find an scapegoat. Who is to blame? Grab your torches and your pitchforks and let’s go.

Bars! It’s all bars fault! These supposed factories of social lubrication more often turn out to be social sandpaper. The standard recipe of three part booze, one part striped shirt, and two parts Bon Jovi rarely bakes into 10 digits. There are a couple ingredients missing here. We can do better! Si se puede!

The problem is a stunning lack of innovation in the bar scene. It is the one institution that somehow remains aloof to changes in technology and social norms. A bar is 1) a room, 2) a bartender and 3) some booze and that hasn’t changed since Middle Age taverns. Bars that are commonly considered “different” frankly are really not. The most extreme examples you hear are “it plays 80s music” or “it has a secret entrance” or “it has a giant ice sculpture.” I want to throw out some random ideas for what could truly make a bar both stand out and better serve its purpose (social lubricant). A few different categories:


Currently at the forefront: Communal seating.

As mis Nuevoyorquinos know, people love Zum Sneider on Avenue C and Spitzer’s Corner on Rivington. Don’t let anyone convince you it’s the hefeweizen that’s bringing people in. It’s definitely those long wooden tables that force you to rub shoulders with strangers.

Sake Bar Satsko is my personal favorite for design-coerced socialization. Small individual tables laid side-by-side with bench seating on an elevated platform and a small L-shaped bar that is always friendly. Plus the bartender Jesse always wants in on the action. Sake bomb?

The next level: Privacy-averse design.

Still I would define communal seating in bars at best as “privacy-neutral.”Can we take the idea a bit farther? Make it something more coercive? One way is table curvature. Large round tables force conversation. But they have to be large enough to be inhabited by multiple groups. Three-walled enclosures (“nooks”) have a similar effect. While the configuration can help, the key is forcing people to sit with strangers

Step change: Dislocation

A bar doesn’t have to be a storefront. It can move. Same people, same bartenders, same attitude, but different scenery every week. Michael points out that laundromats should get into the bar business. Maybe bars can get into the laundry business on Sunday afternoon. A bar can convene at a baseball game, in the park with some brown bags, even in someone’s apartment! All it takes is an email to its patrons…

Crowd control:

Currently at the forefront: Limiting ingress

At Death & Co and the Bourgeoisie Pig, there’s often a wait but always a seat for me. These places are destinations and not pit stops on a barhop. They are comfortable and cool and make people want to linger. We have the asshole doorman to thank for that.

The next level: Limit egress

Sounds like a firecode violation, but hear me out.

First the advantages of limiting egress: A relatively static room of individuals leads to greater opportunities for socialization. The constant coming and going common to bar-heavy neighborhoods in New York leaves patrons disoriented and without the ability to “stalk their prey.” The ability to scope a scene and interact with the same set of people in different configurations eases socialization

There is exactly one practical way I can think of to this. Have people pay admission for multiple hours (with open-bar or drink tickets to have it all make sense). Individuals react irrationally to sunk costs. They will suppress their Friday-night wanderlust due to the initial monetary outlay. This phenomenon is beneficial to the bar scene as a whole, possibly justifying the policy.

Step change: Customer recruiting

When I want to throw a small get together, I send out a 20 person email. When I want to throw a rager, I send out a Facebook invite and evite. Sometimes I invite work friends. Sometimes school friends. Sometimes both. My recruiting choices give me a degree of control over the tone of the party. This is why house parties are usually better than bar parties — someone took the care to recruit.

Fancy clubs play the same game with promotors. There is no reason mainstream bars and lounges can’t play as well. Recruit some people who you think might get along. Invite people with the same profession or same interests. Invite only beatiful people. Invite only fat people. Invite only weird people. Everyone will have a better time. Invite some people 9PM-11PM and others 11PM-2AM and others 2AM-4AM. So many permutations. And someone’s job should be to organize this stuff.

Social engineering

Currently on the forefront: The neighborhood bar

Everyone loves a bar where they recognize a few folks and know the bartender. This is unintentional and informal social enginering at work. We can do better though …

The next level: The internets!

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Social networking lately has been that hammer. Fortunately, we’ve got the perfect nail. In the end, the business of a bar is in-person social networking. They need expand their capabilities online. Why can’t I Facebook the people who were at my bar last night even without knowing their names? Better yet, why can’t I Facebook the people who WILL be at my bar tonight? Bars need to get in on the social networking game that is increasingly being played on the internet. Pretty soon it will be played on handhelds with GPS. Is the girl in the corner single? Let me check my iPhone. Yes … and she likes the same type of movies as me.

Step change: Behavioral bars

Friends are usually pretty good at setting people up with others they think might hit it off. Bars don’t even try. In the same way that Google can serve me a relevant advertisement, bars should be able to serve me a relevant person. The mechanism is a bit tricky but not out of reach. Could Facebook or Google send me to a relevant bar algorithmically? Or even simpler — how about a behavioral bar directory where you can self-allocate based on the type of people you want to meet?

Providing common ground

At the forefront: Board games and Buck Hunter.

In other words, the “forefront” here is pretty lame. How can you give people more to talk about than the weather and what drinks they’re holding? And it doesn’t have to be kitschy or ironic.

The next level: Activities

Beer pong, flip cup, looking at art, contests, dice, debates, karaoke, 7 minutes in heaven, square dancing lessons, never-have-I-ever. Give me something to do besides sit around nursing a gin and tonic. Activities provide common ground and force interaction. Already done to some degree but would like to see more.

Step change:Introductions

A couple times I’ve convinced my friends to wear nametags out to bars. (not real names) The theory is a nametag will create common ground and make your more approachable. The most effective nametag: Dr. Zizmor. People will come up to you: “Hey, I saw you on the subway. Can you make my skin beautiful?”The nametag offered a small way for each of us to promote an aspect of our personality and create common ground. While not a game-changer, it does work.

How can a bar force people to let out more of themselves and create common ground? Their ability to fight anonymity will better serve their purpose. I have a couple ideas, but send me your thoughts.

Finally — painfully obvious but often ignored:

Unless there’s a dance floor, turn down the fucking music. Thanks.


Readers? Other nudges to encourage socialization at bars? Throw them in the comments.