Eye contact is a powerful thing. Countless studies and experiments have been carried out affirming its potency with psychologist Arthur Aron’s four-minute intimacy exercise being one of the most popular.
After all, the eyes, as they say, are the windows to the soul, laying bare a person’s emotional state to anyone paying close attention. So, to indulge in such an exercise, and with a stranger at that, can give anyone pause.
And if I had heard of Human Online at any point outside of when the world was actively self-isolating, I may have not given it more than a moment’s thought. Yet I found myself gripped with curiosity, nervousness, and excitement.
You don’t know anything about them.
Human Online is a place to be yourself and share a Human Minute with another person. You don’t know where they are, who they are, or anything about them outside of the fact that they’re there seeking a moment of solitude and reprieve.
To participate, you simply have to sign up and then click ‘Connect’ and you’ll be paired up with the next available person through video only; no audio. And then you just sit there and look into each others’ eyes.
The first time I tried it, it was nearing midnight. I was too keyed up to go to sleep that day and decided to give it a go. I had no expectations but I couldn’t help feeling tense, my stomach in knots.
What will that person think of me? What if they immediately disconnect? What if instead of a face-to-face, I get a face-to-dick situation?
As I sat worrying, the loading screen gave way to a video. A man against a white background, in black-rimmed glasses and a tan tee, with a salt-and-pepper beard popped up long enough for me to note his annoyed expression before he disconnected, undoubtedly assuming that his connection had failed to, well, connect.
My next few tries were unsuccessful as each time I logged on, I was met with an even handful of people and no one to connect with. In the wake of these failed attempts, I wondered… how would it feel to stare into my own eyes?
Not that deep, turns out. Aside from noting that one eye is slightly larger than the other, I didn’t feel any sort of shift within. The moment of silence, though, was welcome.
Later that night, I tried again. This time, I was the one who dropped out just as the other person loaded in. With nerves now replaced with slight impatience, I reloaded my page and pressed ‘Connect’. The same woman I had unceremoniously left in the lurch showed up.
I felt nothing.
She was a brunette, in a striped blue-and-white hoodie. We both gave tentative smiles and looked at each other. Chests rising, swallowing, small shifts and smiles, unwavering eye contact, and yet – nothing. I felt nothing. As the minute ended and the window closed, it felt anti-climactic.
My next two times were similar. I met with men. Each time filled with soft smiles and gestures but, overall, I felt unmoved. Filing the entire experience under “at least I tried it”, I let Human Online drift to the back of my mind.
The next time I logged on, I was coming out of a shitty day. I felt emotionally exhausted. I felt alone, lonely in fact. I couldn’t think of one person to turn to until I thought of Human Online.
Why not? I thought as I logged on. I tried to connect. Failed. Tried again. No one. The third time, despite people saying ‘is the charm’ was quite the opposite. I wondered if I should take this as a sign that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to share any moment with someone, let alone a minute. I wondered if I was being selfish in my attempt to connect with someone.
And yet, I kept clicking and came across two women. They were in a salon, one the hairdresser and the other who was having her hair done, the caller. The hairdresser had her mask on but the woman in the chair had hers dangling off the side of one ear. She smiled widely at me as I came into focus and both the women waved enthusiastically.
The Human Minute is supposed to be a space of quiet reflection. Where silence ensues and movement is asked to be kept to an absolute minimum. Have a background that isn’t distracting is what’s recommended on the website.
Everything about this call was the opposite.
The woman in the chair began to speak but no audio could be heard. She peered in closer at the screen and slowly mouthed “Are you okay?” as she pointed at me. I nodded as she moved in closer.
“You look sad,” she mouthed next.
Retreating, she began to show me around the salon, tilting her camera back-and-forth. She was speaking but I had no idea what was being said. Overwhelmed, I disconnected before the minute reached its end and sat in silence.
“You look sad,” she mouthed next.
I felt shitty for disconnecting but, for some reason, I felt exposed and vulnerable and couldn’t bring myself to finish that call. Then, I found myself smiling to myself. I felt light, basking in the warmth of that woman’s welcoming demeanor.
That’s when it hit me why I returned to Human Online.
Despite feeling disconnected the first few times, I had unknowingly walked away each time with a sense of ease. It was only this time, going in with a dark cloud over my head, that I noticed the difference.
To be able to share a moment like that with a stranger turned out to be liberating. Off the bat, Human Online identifies itself as a safe space.
“My deepest longing for this space is that someone is simply there with me. However I am in this moment, and however they are, we are here with each other in an essential way,” said Nicolás Amaya, the co-founder of Human Online.
We live in a world that is so full of distractions and words that having a space that strips us of talk and any action outside of simply being is eye-opening. It’s a minute you take for yourself and one another person to merely exist in one space in quiet companionship.
No expectations, nothing to achieve nor prove. Nothing to do but be.
In a way, it’s a perfect moment. Those people I interacted with are ones I will likely never come across in reality. Our moments are nothing more or less than simply pure memories of light-heartedness and relief.
It’s the kind of moments we all need more of, especially in times like these.