The Virtual Dinner Guest Project: ‘Talking With Your Mind Full’

You’re sitting at a table laden with toast and cheese, chips and hummus, sandwiches, raspberries, rolls – and a single laptop. On the other side of the screen is a similar table in Cairo, bearing some foods you recognize and some you don’t. The people around each table have exchanged introductions, swapped news articles, and had a few laughs. Now the table is open for questions. What would you want to ask?

Virtual Dinner Guest Project

Conversations like this are happening around the world thanks to Eric Maddox and the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, “a movement aimed at creating a global cultural shift in the way people view their relationship to news media” and interpret the information around them. The project works like this:

  1. Two groups in different countries share a meal through videoconferencing technology and ask each other questions about local news and events.
  2. Each group takes a question from the other group and shoots a series of man-on-the-street interviews, asking people that one question.
  3. Each group makes and shares a video.
  4. The groups reconvene for a second meal to discuss the experience.

Two weeks ago, my classmates and I had a great conversation with a group of young people in Cairo about media, change, and everyday life. They wanted to know our thoughts on Obama’s foreign policy, particularly regarding Israel and Palestine; what could be done to bridge the increasingly political age gap in Egypt; and how trustworthy our media sources are. We wanted to know what misconceptions they thought people had about Egypt, what they felt the goal of the revolution was, and what it has actually been like to live in Egypt since 2011.

At the end of the conversation, each group gave the other a question to take to the streets. We asked them to ask Cairo, “What advice would you give the next generation of Egyptians?” They asked us to ask DC, “Do you think America is the best place to come to make a better life? Why or why not?”

Our group split into subgroups to collect interviews, and the following Saturday, two of my classmates and I set out intrepidly into the rain with our little Cannon camcorder and a finicky lavalier. After a quick stop to recharge the camcorder battery, we were ready to go.

Preparing equipment

First in the National Museum of American History, then under an archway, and finally on the subway platform, we asked people in Washington, DC to share their opinions with us. Although there were some slow moments while we waited for people to walk by, hunching over our equipment to protect it from the rain, we found a lot of willing interviewees and got a range of opinions, from uncritical enthusiasm to personal reflection to discussion of academic studies.

Man-on-the-street interviews

On Tuesday we met with the rest of the larger group to put all our footage together. Over the next two days, we spent more than eleven hours editing our video. The largest challenge in group editing is, we learned, making sure everyone has a chance to participate. But collaborative editing also generated a lot of great ideas, including a Love Actually-inspired ending montage (thanks to Chenwu Violet Jiang).

Virtual Dinner Guest Project
Photo by Erica Burman

Tomorrow we meet with the Cairo group for another meal, and the final videos will be revealed. Stay tuned!


Videos are live! Watch them on Vimeo:

Cairo: What advice would you give to the next generation of Egyptians?
Washington, DC: Is America the best place to come to make a better life?


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