For the first assignment for Surveillance Society: Data Trails We Leave Behind class we had to run a social observation experiment: observe people for 60-90min and make notes on what we notice. I did one with Osama Sehgol.

We chose not to move but stay at one fixed location over a given period of time. The location was center of Washington Square Park.

Some of my notes below.


–> the city moves so fast, nonetheless, when you enter the park it feels like an isolated island: so sunny and so slow (and once you sit down, you have nothing other left, than just to relax)
–> people taking selfies: groups tend to take selfies near the fountain and solo people from the corners of the park. All of them are however pointed to the same direction: the arch
–> most people don’t look like they are in a hurry
–> dogs and their owners look alike
–> actions: some people talking on the phone, passing by or just sitting in a sun
–> one thing I noticed was that in Europe it’s very easy to spot tourists from how they dress (especially Germans), in NY however people tend to dress up, so it’s a bit harder, unless they have selfie sticks or tend to be in a touristic spots that regular New Yorkers tend to avoid

How do people move:

–> ones just sitting and enjoying
–> or transitioning somewhere else (headphones on, specific goal in mind)
–> of course, some tourists taking photos (mostly selfies)
–> homeless people
–> groups of students moving by

People over longer period of time:

There was one homeless woman that sat down in front of us on a bench and started drinking Coke. It seemed like she was also simply observing people and enjoying being in the sun. She looked so gracious drinking from the bottle (carefully taking it and putting it back) and she was still there when we were about to leave.

How long conversations last:

  1. Few really short: there was woman asking few tourists if they need help with the map. As soon as they said that they are fine, the conversation ended.
  2. There were two women walking their dogs: as they walked by each other, one of them made a comment on how cute the other’s dog is. While the dogs were sniffing around, they started with a small talk about what their dogs wear. It seemed to be the end but then suddenly they realized that they knew each other: they’ve met somewhere before and they had few acquaintances in common. Small talk turned into deeper conversation — still about their dogs. Suddenly some random guy who was sitting next to me on a bench joined the conversation by calling one woman by her name (more about that later), but woman didn’t seem to pay much attention. They started showing each other Instagram photos of their dogs and talking how they should walk them together sometime. Strange or funny enough, one thing I noticed was that only one dog got all the attention, not the other two.

Meeting someone unexpected:

Back to a guy from a bench. While we were there he called by name maybe 5 people. He seemed like a regular: first woman with a dog, then another guy walking by. The guy sat down next to him and sat there for around ~30min. It seemed like they are in the park all the time.

It was hard to read who are they until one more man joined (they all knew each other) and they started talking about chess. The last man who joined started telling how the winter is coming and chess season will be over and that rain and chess don’t mix, so he’s using every sunny moment to be here and play chess. And that he should hurry and get the table because it will get very busy within the next few hours (it was around 11:30am when we were there). He was also unhappy about the time change because it meant that he lost one hour of daylight to play chess. And that in winter he will have to move to some building on 53rd and Lexington to play chess there.

He also mentioned that he earns money by playing chess and that’s when I realized that he must be homeless (it’s still hard to read for me because homeless people here look different from the ones in Europe). He said that it’s better to play kids because you can still teach them something. He looked like super smart person who had unfortunate life to become homeless and whose all life was chess now.

Soon after he left the other two men decided to take a walk as well and left us with their last conversation:

Man #1: “Who do you usually fuck with?”
Man #2: “Only homeless people, because I’m homeless.”

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