Buzz over new social experiment in S’pore

Melissa Law

The drinks are flowing, the conversation is scintillating, it's a laugh-a-minute and so far, even though the night's just begun, you're having a ball and can't wait for what the rest of the evening promises.

On your phone, that is.

Let's face it, pretty much everyone has been guilty of this modern-day dilemma in our technology-ridden lives — whether to address the person(s) sitting across from you on a night out, or reply to a recent Tweet (read: insert relevant alternative media platform here) from someone on your list. Maybe it would best be summed up in a Tweet like this: 'Do I Instagram my drink for all others to see or actually talk to my date? First-world problems, lol! # You're doing it wrong, regardless.'

Sound familiar? Brands and a vast array of social media platforms want you to interact on every possible front, in every possible way. Today, you see the most avid users of social media informing their community of every possible nuance and update in their lives. And lest you think this is an exaggeration, know that some young adults have already been in the news for hash-tagging the births of their progeny (and future social media wonderkinder to be sure), in the midst of the actual throes of birthing itself. Far be it for the world to miss getting on that train! However, it does make a great case for multi-tasking. But that's a story for another time.

Well, the good news is, you're not alone. The bad news is, you're just another victim to the social media plague. Enter the solution, and from a group of very enterprising young minds, no less. A little Social Rehab, anyone?

Under the auspices of advertising company BBH Barn's internship program, three interns put a stop to this social phenomenon, for one night at least, by inviting willing participants to a night out with friends — without all the gadget accoutrements. Their names: Sarah Chan, Scarlett Montanaro and Rhys Hillman. Their brief from their mentors at The Barn: to 'do something good, famously'. And that they did.

Think of the team as akin to Cerberus, the three-headed gatekeeper to the underworld — except way more attractive, and with personality and gumption to boot. But like their mythological counterpart, theirs is a serious job — to prevent those who defect over to the Social Rehab side from taking up mobile arms to excess, ever again. Enough said, and they certainly stepped up in rolling out an effective plan to bring communication back to basics — doing so with a full campaign at under $2000, no less. Held at rooftop bar Loof, it has been gathering momentum ever since.

This is how Social Rehab works.

First, willing participants officially check into a night of social rehabilitation, of their own volition. Once they register, they have to lock up their phones in a locker on the premises, a world-first. They are then given a wristband with a time. While the program starts at 7pm and runs all the way to 11pm, depending on when participants came in, they are entitled to a tier-system of discounts on drinks.

For example, if they check in at 7, the first hour would entitle them to a 10% discount. This would then progress to another 10% off in the next hour, going all the way up to 40% off in total. In a savvy move to motivate participants on the night, there's nothing quite like sweetening the pot with a great deal on libations. This turns the focus towards creating an atmosphere where hopefully, everyone would be engaging one another on a personal basis.

The transition to a no-phone night out was made seamless with kits that brought home the message. Each partygoer who locked up their phone was also given a range of handy items that would be all-too-familiar: 'Instaglasses' instead of Instagram, 'Twitter' note cards instead of digital Tweets, 'Like' stickers instead of the 'Like' button on Facebook and 'Draw Something' doodle pads instead of the popular smartphone application. The kit was created by the team with the intention of allowing guests to segue to easy conversation, without the crutch of a turning to a phone whenever a lull in conversation occurred.

According to Chan, this was a necessary evil, given today's context of phone usage to the point of diminishing returns.

"We were reading up on social media and technology addictions, and we started seeing many articles on people being addicted to social media, and how smartphones were making people anti-social. And so we just hit on that and developed it, and this is what it became in the end. We wanted it to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. We didn't want to just tell people to stop using social media, because it can easily go that way. So we asked them to curb this behaviour in a friendly way and that's why we have a tangible social rehab kit that allows them to have fun."

Teammate Montanaro agrees, saying, "It's become full-circle, really. The reason why we're supposed to be using smartphones is to keep communication going and to be more social, but it's made us anti-social — which has made us awkward in social situations. And then we're using our smartphone again to kind of stop the awkwardness! It's a vicious cycle that's going around. So, I think it is a whole new kind of social tick, and this sparked the rehab idea. We don't want to stop it altogether — social media is great — but there's a time and a place."

Interaction via social media is increasing at an exponential rate. On average, we look at our phones 150 times a day. 24% of people miss out on actually experiencing important moments, as they are too busy capturing them for others to see. We all have these social interactions that are, for all intents and purposes, very impersonal. 'Liking' a status on Facebook is a poor substitute for actually communicating with someone in person — but an avenue most of us turn to as the next best thing, due to the frenetic pace of our lives. Ultimately, it is about getting the balance right. Digital natives need to know when to draw the line, and this was the intent behind the effort — the takeaway lesson, if you will.

The irony of using social media to say a firm no to social media was not lost on the group. But with a collated social reach of 1.5 million people, it was hard not to use the various platforms to get their message across. This has resulted in the website being viewed in over 70 countries and contacts from places like London, Brazil and Australia getting in touch with the team, to implement Social Rehab elsewhere.

Hillman reveals that the extent of their success, while welcome, was not anticipated.

"I guess it's kind of taken us by storm a little. It's something that has sparked a lot of online discussion, across major websites now, that's been really positive. It's an issue that we knew people cared about. The fact that we've come out and made a stand has given many people the support I guess they needed to really start talking about the issues — which is what we wanted to do."

At the end of the day, even if the impact of the program is like that of a ripple in a pond, hopefully the effects will travel far and wide in the same way, given time and circumstance. For Chan, Montanaro and Hillman, this is the goal. And let's be honest, a little Social Rehab never hurt anyone. Now go ahead and Tweet that — in under 140 characters, of course.