JokeBox: Getting Strangers to Talk to Each Other


A few weeks ago I traveled to San Francisco to present a new paper at CSCW 2016. This work differs from my core research, which focuses on technologies for collaborative citizen action, participatory sensing, open source and making. The Jokebox study follows from my interest on empathy and prosocial behaviour, and on how novel interfaces can augment the urban landscape by supporting shared encounters.

Eye contact is crucial to shared encounters in public spaces. However, most urban technologies that aim to foster social interaction tend to rely on screens, directing a significant proportion of the users’ attention towards the device rather than to those with whom the encounter is shared.

The Jokebox was designed to attract passers-by and incentivise them to coordinate actions. Each box can detect people nearby and invites them to interact by playing an audio file with the instructions: “If you want to hear a joke, press both buttons at the same time”. Once the boxes have played the instructions, they go into a playing mode. In this mode, two people have a three seconds window of time to press both buttons at the same time; thus they have to coordinate explicitly. Each button emits a blinking light pattern to indicate that the play session is on going; the blinking pattern increases its speed within the last 10 seconds to indicate the time window is almost over. The boxes play a joke when being pressed synchronously. Otherwise an error audio file is triggered.

Here we present the design and evaluation of the Jokebox, a lightweight technology that requires two passers-by to coordinate actions to hear a joke. In three in the wild studies at different locations we found that our design supported micro-level coordination in a consistent manner: by encouraging people to make eye contact and by using audible jokes, users engaged in interactions that often led to further conversation and laughter.

We describe how opportunities for macrolevel coordination were key to the success of the installation, but varied by context. Finally, we present design implications for considering both the micro and macro levels of social coordination.


Mara Balestrini, Paul Marshall, Raymundo Cornejo, Monica Tentori, Jon Bird, and Yvonne Rogers. 2016. Jokebox: Coordinating Shared Encounters in Public Spaces. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (CSCW ’16). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 38-49. DOI= [Honourable Mention]


The Jokebox in the media

About Mara Balestrini

Mara Balestrini is Human Computer Interaction (HCI) expert and technology strategist.

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