“I came across this study about how we’re more connected than ever, and it just came to me to do this,” Gootnick said. “I was having a constant conversation about social media with my friends. As a 23-year-old I think it’s the conversation of my generation.”
Gootnick is referring to a 2011 study that stated social media had such a wide reach that any two people on the planet are connected by a chain of four people at most. It was an updated take on psychologist Stanley Milgram’s popular “six degrees of separation” theory published in 1967.
In keeping with the idea, Gootnick would only accept a ride or a place to sleep from people who could be traced to him within four degrees.
He asked his friend, filmmaker Oliver Shahery, to accompany him and document the experience on video. They named the trip #ProjectFourDegrees and left Westlake for New York on June 15.
Shahery had his doubts about their success but knew he could make a documentary whether they succeeded of not.
“It just seemed like a crazy idea, not having a car, not really having places to stay locked in. Ari was aware we might not make it,” Shahery said.
“I would talk to people about it; it was 50/50 between people who believed we’d make it and people who didn’t.”
The trip came together more smoothly than they anticipated—it took them six days to reach Austin, Texas, where Gootnick went to college. Before their arrival the two had felt pressured to keep traveling, but once they reached Austin they decided to relax and spend time in each city they stopped in.
Gootnick said one of the project’s goal was to overcome the divide between social media connections and real ones. Whereas online conversations can often be more combative than productive, Gootnick found that discussing politics or gun laws while riding in a car opened up a dialogue that was lacking on social media.
“When we brought up those topics in conversations, it was very respectful to each other; we listened, we had healthy debates,” Gootnick said. “We agreed. We were open to changing our own opinions and seeing their side.”
The challenge was checking himself out of the conversation to return to social media to find the next host. Given the nature of their travel arrangements there was plenty of time spent looking for a ride or waiting for one.
“In a lot of ways, we did a coffee shop tour of America,” Shahery said. “Sometimes we would get to a city and we’d chill with the person who dropped us off, or we’d get somewhere at noon and (our ride) wouldn’t be off work until 6, so we’d have six hours to kill.”
The project even made headlines in the Washington Post, through a third-degree connection, of course. Gootnick’s friend posted a call for a ride in a Facebook group, where it was noticed by an intern at the newspaper. That story in turn led to an article in the Boston Globe, which Gootnick points to as a perfect example of the organic connections made by social media.
After 25 days on the road, #ProjectFourDegrees reached Manhattan July 10. The experience exceeded Gootnick and Shahery’s expectations. Shahery said he only recently finished digesting the adventure and is now ready to get to work producing the documentary.
Gootnick said he considers the project a success not only because people were following the journey online, but also because it started conversations about the nature of social media—discussions he still has every day. He said what he most appreciates are the connections forged by his time on the road.
“It was always funny when we were saying our goodbyes to people,” Gootnick said. “They’d say, ‘I know we met as a third degree, but am I now a first degree?’ and we said ‘yeah of course.’”