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Wake up! A 3 a.m. phone call is your ticket into this nocturnal social network

Call in the night

The average phone call is about three minutes and 15 seconds long, and usually happens sometime in the afternoon. Talking on the phone is actually quickly becoming an antiquated act altogether, what with the Facebook Messaging and WhatsApping and Snapchatting and the simpler-yet texting. Why talk when you can text or tweet?

But there is a very strange corner of the Internet that is still making use of the phone call: Call in the Night describes itself as “an experimental radio show and telephone network documenting the nighttime experience.” Essentially, you sign up to connect with random strangers for late-night chat sessions. By late night, I mean 2 a.m., 3 a.m. in the morning late (or rather, early) – a call that, without notice, interrupts your sleep … and records and can broadcast your entire conversation.  

What is Call In The Night? 

Call in the Night began as a class project in the Carnegie Mellon School of Art, created by Max Hawkins, a Computer Science and Art student. He says the idea behind the project was propelled by his interest in sleep and the fact that he had a hard time remembering his own dreams. Much like having a journal by your bedside table so you can quickly document your dream before it leaves your short-term memory, Call in the Night attempts to wake people mid-dream so they can be recorded talking about what was happening during their REM cycle.

Call in the Night is part sleep experiment, part social network, all human interaction.

“Though Call in the Night was originally exclusively about dreams, the conversations I had with my friends on an early prototype of the service made me realize the service could be useful for documenting other parts of the nighttime experience,” Hawkins tells me. “I see it as a distributed documentary radio project. The phone call interrupts whatever you were doing and connects you with another person. By talking with this other person you’re given space for reflection.”

Call in the Night currently has over 3,000 subscribers with area codes representing every U.S. state and Canadian province. The service calls every subscriber roughly once a week. Eight percent of those called on a given night answer and are connected with a partner. Since its launch last November, Call in the Night has placed over 20,000 nighttime phone calls and records nearly 24 hours of audio content each week. The project made it to the front page of Reddit in March, where it generated over 2,000 new users in a day. “It’s been exciting to have such a large and diverse subscribership. You really never know who you’re going to be connected with,” Hawkins says.

How Call in the Night functions is as simple as the concept: In the middle of the night several times a week, custom dialer software places a VOIP phone call to a randomly selected group of subscribers. If they answer, subscribers are connected to a voice response system and will hear a prompt, usually asking them to think about their night, the dream they were in the middle of having, or any related topic. Users are given around 30 seconds to think about this prompt while they are being connected to another caller who answered at the same time. Once the call is connected, the conversation gets rolling – and Call in the Night starts recording. 

call in the night page

According to Hawkins, all calls are recorded and sent to the Call in the Night server for analysis, where recordings are automatically split into short clips, machine transcribed, and sound-analyzed for emotional content. “We listen to a randomly-selected sample of the clips to discover interesting conversations that might be featured in the podcast. The rest of the clips are archived and can be accessed by keyword search.”

Podcasts, currently still in development, will be based on a theme and feature clips from conversations relating to that theme. Hawkins says that now that the service has been running for a few months, he has enough source material to start pulling together shows (though there is a demo available).

My very own Call in the Night 

“Really? You’re willing to interrupt your sleep to talk to a random person about your dreams? Isn’t that a tad creepy?,” was my husband’s response when I told him I was signing up for Call in the Night. Of course “Uuh, yes, it is creepy,” is what I realized – but so are most things about the Internet. Why not dive into one that actually connects two people, and encourages a conversation? Is it really any creepier than our location-blasting, selfie-obsessed social networking ways?

Our fears. Our most memorable experiences. Online versus offline life. The conversation, which I thought (maybe even hoped) would be brief at first, ended up lasting an hour.

One of the most important parts of the Call in the Night experience is that you have no clue when you’ll get your call – all the site says is after you sign up with your phone number, an automated call from the site will be placed sometime in the week, after 2 a.m. Eastern time (which is after 11 p.m. my time). My concerns in anticipation of the call were many: I pre-pitied the person who would get my call, for I figured I’d be a cranky biatch who’s so not in the mood to talk about dreams, or I’d feel too weird talking to them to reveal anything interesting. Or what if I turned out to just  be boring and too groggy to carry a decent conversation? Whatever, I thought: The call will be short, and I will be curt.

I was barely falling asleep when I received my first call at 3 a.m. my time. With a mix of excitement, fatigue, and dread, I waited to be connected to my Call in the Night partner. His name was Elias. He wasn’t asleep when he got his call. He’s from California. After all that was established (“I’m Jam, I’m from the West Coast, hey I’m from California, too!”) we immediately started the exercise.

At first, we both had trouble thinking of something to talk about, since our prompt asked us to discuss our dreams and neither one of us had enough time for one to pop into our sleeping minds, but my reporter instincts immediately kicked into gear (I was not wasting valuable sleep time for nothing, after all) and I asked him how many times he’d used Call in the Night and what he thought about it. That’s when he told me he’s been on the list for about three months, but I was only his third call. Despite that, he thought the idea behind the project was intriguing, and that he’d connected with some interesting, cool people. I timidly told him he was my first Call in the Night partner (and it sort of  makes me cringe now to remember I admitted this).

In the absence of specific dreams to talk about, we started discussing them in general. Do you usually remember your dreams, or do they evade you the moment you wake up? Do you go back to sleep to continue a dream or change its ending? That sort of thing. It led to a short discussion of previous dreams we’d had that we can still remember. And it surprised me that something as basic as that could lead into other, more thought-provoking territory. Poetry, writing, and the curse of writer’s block. Previous travels. Fears. Our most memorable experiences. Online versus offline life. The conversation, which I thought (maybe even hoped) would be brief at first, ended up lasting an hour. While only Elias and I can access the entire conversation by logging into the site with our phone numbers, we have this snippet to share.

Call in the Night: The most human social network yet? 

It’s actually fairly easy (maybe even easier) to spark a conversation with someone you don’t know well simply because everything you say is new to the stranger – it’s refreshing to be able to tell someone a story a friend or acquaintance may have heard a dozen times from you at parties and social gatherings. This probably relates to how it’s becoming easier and easier for us to engage with people online versus in real life; there’s something about artificial intimacy that can make the walls come down. My conversation with Elias had no “rules;” we pretty much kept going until we decided to call it a night, and the truth is once we got going it was sort of difficult to stop because whenever a conversation thread died, a new one easily emerged.

Call in the Night is a strange, spontaneous, effective strategy to meeting and getting to know another person. It’s also sort of a personal challenge to step outside your comfort zone and have a real conversation; not a Facebook chat or a thread of back-and-forth tweets. You can’t pick your words or edit them … you just talk. 

I don’t think I’d mind my sleep being interrupted by a future Call in the Night call. The site even explains nighttime calls might even make you sleep better since human sleep is naturally polyphasic, but I think I will have to try the experiment one more time to be certain – my first call left me wide awake for a good hour or two afterward. Despite the lost sleep, the experience was an effective tool in sparking creativity – an ideal one, actually, if you’re willing to sacrifice some shut-eye for a brief moment of brilliance in the wee hours of the morning.

I’m going to keep my number on Call in the Night’s database for a few more weeks, just to see if anything exciting happens. “There have already been countless fascinating connections on Call in the Night. People regularly have 1-2 hour long conversations on the service,” Hawkins says. “One of my favorite calls happened during college finals season. A student worried about writing a philosophy paper was connected with a professor of philosophy. He offered to help with the paper. They smoked a joint together over the phone instead.”

The anecdote perfectly explains the forced intimacy and unpredictability of the service. Call in the Night is part sleep experiment, part social network, all human interaction. And that’s more than you can say for most of the social services we “communicate” on.