We met up with Jonathan Dunne, a man who recently received a lot of media attention. Originally hailing from Colorado, Jonathan has lived in London for twenty years and works for the NHS in the Holborn area. An affable guy, in late September he launched Tube Chat, a simple campaign encouraging people to start conversations whilst using the London Underground. As you can probably imagine, this was met with mixed reactions from citizens of our capital, where people are generally outspoken, yet nobody wants to actually talk to anyone.
“You see travellers all alone on the Tube," explains Jonathan as we observe the hustle and bustle of Southampton Row. "Even without earphones in or a book in front of them, you know that randomly starting a conversation could be a huge invasion of privacy. That’s where the badges come in.”
Starting relatively small, Jonathan gave out around 500 of these badges around Old Street station. Their design is clear and welcoming, presenting the offer of “Tube chat?” along with the London Underground’s logo. He did this during rush hour – a time when people automatically take anything that’s handed to them – and distributed the remaining few to his coworkers. Having set up a Twitter account, the social interaction reformer then eagerly awaited a bombardment of tweets and the sound of excited chitchat during his journey home. Disappointingly, he was met by neither.
"The following day there was a message or two, but nothing else. It felt like it had fallen flat."
Then came some phone calls, and with them a new world of opportunity. Jonathan was suddenly in demand with the Beeb, receiving requests from Breakfast news, Radio 4 and the World Service to explain his strange new concept of speaking to a fellow human being. Naturally, Jonathan leapt at the chance to spread the word and discuss his campaign more in depth. This soon snowballed and led to a variety of other journalists and producers getting in touch, from German newspapers to ABC Canberra in Australia, and within a week the entire planet knew about Tube Chat through one platform or another.
“I’m off to my third interview for Brazilian TV,” he laughed as we drank our flat whites outside FreeState Coffee. And yet, despite the media explosion plastering Jonathan across the Internet, it soon became evident that not a single passerby seemed to click who he was. “No one recognises me,” he explained with a smile, “although people in Brazil may know my face by tonight.”
Whilst global coverage is fantastic, what we found especially interesting was the public’s response to Tube Chat. After all, in this case it’s the individuals that use the transit system in question whose opinions are the most relevant, not to mention the most amusing. Almost as soon as the official account had launched, a far less friendly rival popped up, sporting the no-nonsense handle @shutuptubechat. The disgruntled misery guts behind it even distributed their own badges, bearing the clear warning of “Don’t even think about talking to me!”(The inherent flaws of the badge, in that it draws attention to the wearer and is only readable at close range, were evidently unnoticed by its creator.)
As is always the case when competition appears, the conversation ramped up a few notches. One side was positive:
And the other side not so much:
Hilariously, those who loathe the idea are not only boosting awareness of the campaign, they’re also more vocal than their more hospitable counterparts. Simply searching for “Tube Chat” will bring up hundreds of tweets that resulted in hundreds more in reply, further bumping the original activity into the public eye.
Perhaps the irony is that countless opposers vehemently declared how they’d rather, say, stick pins in their eyes than engage in conversation, yet the entire point of the badge is to show that the wearer is happy to converse. No badge means no invitation to chat, and an enormous faux pas on the part of anyone who contravenes the system. Elegantly simple, yet apparently missed by the majority of London's population, most likely because they were too busy being grumpy-pump Moan-a-Lisas.
“Everyone knows how to get out of a conversation,” said Jonathan. “Tube Chat isn’t about enforcing, it’s about enabling. If you don’t want to chat, don’t wear a badge. It’s just sometimes nice to have a talk with someone new. ” To our amusement he quickly added: “I’m not needy. I’m not a weirdo."
Now almost a month in operation, Tube Chat has quietened down on Twitter. We'd like to think that this is because online gossip has been replaced by chinwags between commuters, with the instigator considered the King of Confabs and giving high-fives outside the London Transport Museum. Whatever the case, it’s safe to say that Jonathan Dunne – himself a most pleasant conversationalist – certainly got London chatting, at least for a little bit.