Some students use their summer vacations to take a relaxing trip to the beach, but recent UT graduate Ari Gootnick took an alternate route by turning his summer vacation into a social experiment.
On June 15, Gootnick embarked on a journey from Los Angeles, California to Manhattan as part of an initiative he titled Project Four Degrees. In 30 days or less, Gootnick plans to road-trip from the West Coast to the East Coast, depending on travel and housing from the relationships he makes through social media.
The inspiration for Gootnick’s roadtrip adventure was the Six Degrees of Separation theory, which proposes that everyone in the world is six introductions away from one another. This theory has been adjusted, though, as some scholars suggest that the degrees of separation have shrunk to only four degrees due to technology.
“We’re trying to get from LA to New York by tapping into my network and by tapping into the degrees of separation,” Gootnick said. “We’re actually staying at people’s houses. We're riding in people’s cars. People have been calling us modern hitchhikers.”
His rules state that they can travel solely by car, and only accept rides from people within their social media network - no strangers and no impromptu connections.
“While we’re exploring to see if this is something that’s possible, we’re also exploring social media,” Gootnick said. “Social media gives the ability to create relationships online, and then those relationships can turn into connections in the physical world.”
Many were skeptical about Gootnick’s unusual undertaking, including Oliver Shahery, Gootnick’s travel companion and the project’s documentarian. Shahery said despite his original doubts, the experience has been eye opening.
“We’re staying in all these places that we never thought we would even go to, and we never could expect to relate to all of these people,” Shahery said. “It gave me some hope for the fact that, even though we’re living in such a polarized time, there’s so many people that we can chill with for hours.”
One example of a digital friendship going beyond the screen is Chase Cooke, who hosted Gootnick and Shahery in Fayetteville, AR. Cooke said he was impressed by their ability to manipulate technology as a means for physical relationships.
“It’s a really cool way to show that technology hasn’t completely distanced everyone,” Cooke said. “Everyone uses technology now, and we’re so addicted to it that a lot of human interactions don’t exist anymore.”
While social media has proven to be a major asset in this endeavor, Gootnick said he struggles balancing his reliance on social media and unplugging long enough to truly get to know the people he connects with.
“The hardest part is traveling both in the digital world as well as the physical one,” Gootnick said. “You’re with these people for such a limited amount of time, so you want to really be able to connect with them and have some kind of deep conversation.”
Friendships based off of the span of a car ride may seem short-lasting or superficial, but Gootnick said this experience has helped him forge lifelong friendships.
“There is a stigma that in order to have really deep connections you have to know someone for a long time,” Gootnick said. “One thing we’ve learned is that we can form really wonderful relationships after knowing people for just hours.”