We define ourselves by the things that support us: our phones, our loved ones and job. So what would happen if we stripped them away? That’s what Joseph Garner wondered when he was working on “The Hangover” in Las Vegas three years ago.
“It happened to be the time when our country was entering a recession,” he tells Business Insider. “People were going through a world of hurt, losing their life savings and jobs, and I wondered, ‘What would happen if I lost everything? Are we at a place with technology where we can take care of each other?”
The desire to know whether web communities are enough to sustain our lives offline led Garner to embark on the ultimate social experiment: making Craigslist his lifeline for a month.
There’d be no money, no credit card, no emergency stash. No apartment, not even a change of clothes. All Joe would have to rely on was a massive online portal that generates over 50 million unique user per month in 700 cities in the United States and 70 countries around the world.
The epic adventure can be seen in the documentary, Craigslist Joe, produced by Zach Galifianakis. Released in August, it’s been making the festival rounds ever since for its touching portrayal of a country in crisis and the “penniless nomad” who lives one click away from despair.
“I was open for anything”
“I had nothing to rely on except the hopes that people would take the chance on me,” Garner says. “I had to put a lot of trust of people to let them trust me.”
Of course that was easier said than done. For the first few days, Garner says he lived like a pauper, sleeping on park benches, fearful and starving. He lost 15 pounds in a month, and only pushed through the pain by sending our more emails and being “open for anything,” even awkward first dates.
“I’d do tons of postings every morning and respond to those postings,” he says. “I did volunteering, dates, just as much of the categories as I could. It was so focused on me, and I was constantly having to think about what I’d eat and how I’d do that with no money and no one to count on.”
Yet somehow things started to click.
“Once you get going, it becomes less about survival and more about being on autopilot and you start engaging with people,” Garner says, noting how rebuilding homes in New Orleans or performing a standup routine in Chicago could lead to an apple, a sandwich or just a place to crash for the night. “That’s what propelled me throughout the journey. It was a series of events that gradually led to a change in perspective.”
A disruptive community
Perhaps the most striking moment occurred in Seattle, where Garner volunteered at an after school program for refugee children with Mohammed, an Iraqi man who spent four years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Scarred by living in hunger and being racially profiled after 9/11, he was eager to tell his story.
“His family lived somewhere where they could only shower once every six months,” says Garner, “and here’s his father, telling me stories about how they felt they weren’t wanted. We bonded as a family, and that’s when I realised there is something else going on with this project. It wasn’t just fun and adventurous.”
The average Joe lives by his routine, grabbing coffee from Starbucks, greeting the same faces, and then going home, Garner says. But in taking the Craigslist challenge, Garner quickly learned tech could disrupt all of that in the most unexpected ways.
“We’re in a society where tech media, how we get news and everything else is rapidly evolving,” he says. “There’s this instant access to information, and I’m a huge fan of it. But the flipside is, at what price does it come in terms of human face-to-face interaction? How willing would we be to help someone with a flat tire?”
Judging by the film, we’d be more willing than we think.