Considering the number of basic needs that can be met without ever leaving the house these days, it feels like certain human interactions are becoming obsolete. But could the same technology that makes it possible to meet your needs remotely when you have money help you to do the same in person when you’re broke? One man decided he had to find out.
Haunted by stories of people losing their homes and life savings during the thick of the recent recession, Joseph Garner wondered what he would do if he ever hit rock bottom and couldn’t get help from friends and family. This question spurred him to conduct a living experiment to see whether social media had actually made people more isolated and whether a person in need could find ways to get by without any money—solely by connecting through online communities. Eventually, the project came together as a movie, Craigslist Joe, which opened in theaters this month.
Garner left his residence with nothing planned beyond simply surviving without money for as long as possible, and, he hoped, meeting some interesting people along the way. He brought only the basics along with him (beyond a camera guy): just a pre-paid cell phone, a wireless Internet card, the clothes on his back and a toothbrush. He ended up traveling all around the country for 31 days, though, and meeting all types of people—from a dominatrix in Chicago to Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans.
He did not starve to death.
The goal of the project was to see whether technology and social media could bring people closer together, especially in tough times. Using Facebook would have opened up the door to help from too many people Garner knew directly and indirectly. Instead he went the Craigslist route, relying on the kindness of strangers. The budding director put up and responded to ads on the site without mentioning he was making a movie. He wanted to appear as just a guy looking to meet up. In the end, he got 80 hours of footage, which he whittled down into a documentary feature that Zach Galifianakis executive produced.
Garner’s experiences during the course of the project gave him new insight into how to survive, if not thrive without spending any money. Below are his tips for finding food, shelter, rides, companionship and more with nothing but an Internet connection and a whole lot of gumption.
Once I was able to establish some kind of rapport, whether it was via email or over the phone—I would always try to get them on the phone—I could kind of get a feeling for someone. For every one ad that people responded to, there were between 150-200 that didn’t work out. It wasn’t like here’s this magical thing, you just go out there and everyone wants to meet up. You had to kind of connect with them in some way first if you wanted them to trust you. Some people agreed to meet up and then flaked out. I was on the streets a couple nights, but that’s just life. You can’t expect everything you’re doing to work out.
You do hear a lot of stories about bad things happening [through social media meet-ups] and they are sometimes true, so you’ve got to be careful. You want to try to meet up with people in a public place, bring a friend and let a friend know where you’re going. Exchange numbers with the person before hand, exchange photos if you can. Beyond that, though, there are a lot of people who really do just want to connect with people outside of their own little world.
There’s a whole section called Rideshare where people who are driving from NY to DC or something are looking for passengers. Whether they want some company or someone to share driving responsibilities, or a lot of the time they want people to chip in for gas. I would tell them, "Look, I don’t have any money, but I will drive you the entire way or barter some services, whatever you need." And I found enough people willing to open up their world and invite me in. Eventually, I put an ad out looking for a mode of transportation—whether I could borrow a car or a bike or a skateboard—and actually this high school kid answered the ad, and he had an extra bike, so I was able to borrow that.
I really got into volunteering when I was in New York. In the first couple weeks before that, I had been meeting people and they were helping me out, and I felt inspired to give something back. I worked sometimes at actual restaurants and stuff too, but never for money—just to get some food from the kitchen. At some of the volunteer events, there would be pizza or whatever, but more importantly I’d also meet people there and be able to crash at their places. Then, if they had an extra banana, or were making pasta, they would offer up some, and I never felt like I was putting people further out.
There’s kind of that awkward social barrier between people. If you want to meet people, what do you do—just go up to people and introduce yourself? There’s just this kind of uncomfortable wall that we have, that if we get approached by a stranger, we expect that they want something. Interactions that start online are a little easier, though, because there are so many events that are just sort of geared to breaking through that—free yoga in the park or a free cooking night at a restaurant or a free movie night. There was this posting one day, "Hey, we’re having Hanukkah tonight, and all are welcome to come by." I went over there and they were very open and welcoming. The husband and wife there offered to let me and my camera guy crash at their place. There are always free events posted on sites like Meetup.com too. If people are ever feeling disconnected, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who also want to connect with other people.