I'll pay you $500 to just talk to each other

Columbia university offers students cash incentives to mingle

Are campuses becoming such unfriendly places that universities need to pay their students to talk to each other? Columbia University seems to think so.

In an unconventional move, the university launched a game called the “The Social Experiment” to encourage students who don’t know one another to talk to each other, with the incentive of potentially winning $500.

The game, which started Monday, is played by finding other students who hold passwords, which they can only reveal if the “prompt” word is said during a conversation with any student who addresses them. The students then submit the passwords they’ve collected online at a website only accessible to Columbia students. The ten students who have collected the most passwords by today win $500 each. The aim of the competition is to get more students to mingle with each other in the process of collecting the passwords.

The scheme has received quite a bit of criticism since it began this week. In an op-ed for the Columbia student newspaper, the Spectator two students argued that the experiment will fail miserably, and that offering monetary incentives to encourage students to develop connections with one another is “outrageous and offensive.” The New York Times mocked the experiment in their City Blog, asking “did it really have to come to this?”

While the concept of the game is pretty ridiculous, if Columbia university officials are willing to literally pay their students to talk to each other, maybe there is bigger issue here than whether this idea will increase student interaction or not.

Columbia has declined to comment on their motives to create the contest in the media so far. However, some media reports have speculated that the contest is an attempt to curb the excessive use of mobile devices and social networking sites that have become a mainstay on most university campuses, making students increasingly isolated:

“Walking around Columbia is like stepping into that Microsoft commercial where a doctor stares at his phone in the middle of surgery and a bride, walking down the aisle, sends a text,” wrote Andrea Payner of the New York Post. “It’s a place where everyone, from freshman to grad students, bangs into one another unaware, noses pasted into smartphones like oxygen tents.”

This phenomenon is not limited to the Ivy League university. I’ve actually had nightmares about something happening to my Blackberry, and routinely whine about how jealous I am of my friend’s iPhone. As pathetic as this is to admit, if I had to delete my Facebook account, it would be a huge blow to my social life.

Maybe not everyone is as much of a tech-addict as I am, but the dependence university students have on their smartphones and social networking tools is kind of scary. It’s making us less and less likely to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to us in class, when we can just text our friends, or add them on Facebook later.

There’s only so long us university students have together. Maybe it would be better spent face to face than over our cell-phones.

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