PIG: Abolish Small Talk: Laying the Groundwork For Decentralized Community Power Through Everyday Connection

Abolish Small Talk: Laying the Groundwork For Decentralized Community Power Through Quotidian Connection

Team member names:

Shanhuan Manton @hpymntn

Io Samsaara @ioio

We co-create Cyborg Support, an emergent community centred on tech education workshops and experimentations, and hosted a workshop together at the 2023 New Moon Mycology Summit, The Interspecies Artist’s Way. We have an upcoming publication, SmokeScreen, a digital security guide for hacktivists, alongside other writing projects through Deepmay, a project we co-organize.

Short summary of your improvement idea

Social interactions with people outside of our closest circles often rely on incomplete and vague social protocols designed for capital transaction as opposed to relational exchange. E.G.: “How are you” “Good”, and other auto-pilot greetings and scripted small talk strip interactions of opportunities for community building, attunement, and fruitful exchange about shared experiences. This leads to chronic loneliness and fragmented social movements. Solidarity is built through innumerable small interpersonal connections, and our social scripts have been hijacked by extractive hegemonic forces to prevent organic movement building. We will design and test a simple and clear protocol improvements for conversational invitations to interrupt the mind-numbing, soul-crushing scripts preventing genuine relationships within some of our most frequent interactions.

In Protocols in (Emergency) Time, Olivia Steiert posits “Convention-driven (social) protocols, […] often appear to be almost “second nature” and, consequently, timeless. Handshakes and roles within family or professional contexts are often just ‘how things are done’,” categorizing them as “’unconscious,’ implicit, or ‘weakly expressed’ protocols” which “counteract a sense of uncertainty in their repeated enactment.”

Improving upon these social protocols will evolve convention-driven reaction to become intention-driven action.

Our goal is to develop mechanisms which incentivize new patterns that catalyze curiosity and create a sense of playfulness to accelerate learning as a means toward collective liberation. We will experiment through hosted events, workshops, and other invitations for participants from various communities to playtest with playful mechanisms for community building and collect data for analysis to craft sets of improved protocols for engaging in embodied interactions with our bus drivers, neighbours, and together building decentralized community power.

୧ ʕ•̀ᴥ•́ʔ ୨

What is the existing target protocol you are hoping to improve or enhance?

Our target protocol is that which shapes brief daily interactions like grocery check outs, greeting transit workers, waiting on line. These moments of social interaction are acted out through pre-existing but unclearly defined scripts - protocols that reinforce a sense of limited familiarity and uphold community divides. We find the lack of solidarity in a post-lockdown, post-industrial, colonial, imperialist, capitalist, race/class/gender-divided context to be a distinct obstacle to addressing collective harms.

The seemingly innocuous protocols which reinforce division between constructed groups are deeply embedded, carefully designed, and incentivized. The nuclear family, suburban homes, and the denormalization of care forms of isolation that favor empire. A populace stripped of commons and essentially each other are left to believe their struggles are a personal failing as opposed to a systemic one.

Improving the protocols of basic interaction opens the potential for social reorganization on everyone’s terms.

What is the core idea or insight about potential improvement you want to pursue?

We would like to improve the often unacknowledged protocols for brief interactions by altering them to become opportunities for community strengthening and solidarity building. We propose an abolishment of scripted small talk in favor of meaningful check ins and collective curiosity - every interaction becomes an opportunity for deepening understanding of: the world, community, challenges facing the collective, collective needs and wants. By improving the protocol of social interactions with unfamiliar people, we can make spaciousness for inquiry and connection, melt awkwardness and isolation, and cultivate collectivity. We can harness the potential of lingering time and liminal interactions to revive the “third place” as a decentralized occurrence, reclaiming aimless interaction to regenerate community interconnection and cohesion around collective challenges like climate change, local struggles like housing rights, workplace organizing, and emergent mutual aid projects.

What is your discovery methodology for investigating the current state of the target protocol?

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement and International Labor organizing movements, a great deal of community organization took place in what Civil Rights Strategist Bayard Rustin dubbed as “Community Centers of Power.” We will analyze the history of how these movements were organized and what protocols of social interaction facilitated and maintained the movement work. We will interview experts in participatory action research, community and democracy organizing and other social sciences to learn multiple frameworks for analyzing these interactions. We’ll then perform field observations in various contexts in the cities we live in. We will experiment with forms of meaningful quantification of data collected in these observations to articulate a clear snapshot of the protocols that guide interactions, so that we can design interventions that facilitate resilient community networks.

In what form will you prototype your improvement idea?

We will prototype our improvements with a variety of methods, including hosting workshops within varied communities of practice including community organizing and participatory action research, as well as with interested people in our neighborhoods. These will function as a crowdsourced knowledge exchange and brainstorm sessions to devise alternative protocols for everyday interactions. We will also design and test quantitative and qualitative analysis frameworks for tracking how these alterations perform. We will playtest these prototype protocol improvements in role-play simulations within the workshops, and within small test audiences of our local communities, collecting detailed records to aid in an iterative process as we gain further insight.

How will you field-test your improvement idea?

Our field-tests will similarly be a mix of hosted events, as added on prompts or exercises at hosted events, through recruiting interested people to test the improvements in their local communities and quotidian interactions and report back using the analysis frameworks designed in the prototype phase. Participants will be asked to first collect and report data about the “normal interactions” and unspoken protocols they find themselves defaulting to, and then to try out the improved protocols in the same contexts so we can perform comparative analysis on the efficacy of the improved protocols within our different cultural and geographical contexts. Where possible, especially at hosted events and workshops, we will gather supplemental data through video and audio field recordings.

Who will be able to judge the quality of your output?

Our colleagues at BCC, Tucson Mesh, and in extended networks at the Center for Cultural Power, Community Coalition

Participatory Action Researchers, like Rosten Woo or current researchers at the Center for Urban Pedagogy

Experts in Socially Responsible Design like Cynthia E. Smith

Peacebuilding Experts like those at Urban Peace Institute

Democracy organizers like Liz Barry at the Computational Democracy Project

Solidarity Infrastructure researchers like Alice Yuan Zhang, Max Fowler, Oren Robinson, Meghna Mahadevan at School for Poetic Computation

and most importantly, participants in our study.

How will you publish and evangelize your improvement idea?

We will create an in-depth publication of our research & development methods, including a collection of case studies from participants detailing their experiences from a personal perspective as well as a wider view of the shifting community dynamics upon introduction of improved social protocols.

An interactive card game and handbook guide to teach and simulate new protocols via play.

What is the success vision for your idea?

A transformation of our mundane interactions into nodes of decentralized community power. To see these improved protocols in use at a sub-local level, eventually expanding through memetic power to be used across different communities. We expect to observe this through resurgence and sustenance of mutual aid projects, and through an increase in political organizing focused on our common struggles, rather than emergency reactions.

… … … …

a protocol for solidarity network resistance movements

a protocol for fugitive worldmaking

a protocol for tricksters

a protocol disruption without harm

a protocol for finding magic in the margins

a protocol for nomadic, emergent, spontaneous cultural power

a protocol as a scapegoat for dismantling awkwardness

a protocol for taking back the commons

… … … …


y’allll, this is so cool!!! I love this idea and the ways both of your expertises and approaches come together.

Thank you for so throughly describing the interconnections of small talk to our movements. Makes me wonder about how it relates also to “internet small talk.” I.e. how “following” someone can be engaging in conversation or the “Facebook poke” as small talk. I think about the different types of landscape which allow for engagement (i.e. Mastodon vs. Facebook vs. Grocery Store vs. Youtube video comments, etc)…


Thank youu! Our curiosity is definitely informed by your teachings in Solidarity Infrastructures.

Re: internet small talk/ landscapes of engagement, I think it’s definitely worth examining the convention-driven protocols for how we situate ourselves in the common ground of different shared experiences, and all the signals we send and receive in different contexts in order to do so. Built environment/designed UX definitely plays a big role - though landscape can always be altered through social interactions, or modifying semiotics through collective decisions… what’s possible if we collectively intend our ad-hoc experiences to prioritize relationship-tending despite the environment being built to prioritize value extraction (often by disrupting horizontal relationships in community)?