FreeConvo offers analog talk in digital world
FreeConvo founders Tony Cai, 25, left; Mike Scotto, 27, right, on their conversation couches. Photo: Angel Chevrestt
Can we talk? Talk show host Joan Rivers isn’t the only one saying that. Two savvy tech entrepreneurs are asking New Yorkers to do something unheard of — put down their cell phones and tablets for a few minutes and sit and talk. This talk isn’t just cheap. It’s free.
For the past couple of months, Mike Scotto, 27, and Tony Cai, 25, founders of FreeConvo as it has come to be known, travel from neighborhood to neighborhood in their off time, setting up four inflatable couches, two red coffee tables, and signs inviting people to “form real life connections” by sitting down to chat.
And people are jumping at the opportunity. “I’m king of surprised at how passionately people are responding to this,” said Scotto. “People from all over the world have sat down to talk to us—old people, young people, foreigners, locals, men, women.”
In the two months since they started FreeConvo, they’ve had a wide range of people on the couch from the sensational to the sentimental. The President of Chile sat down to talk to the guys during UN week. A famous psychic stopped by and did some readings. When they set up at the music festival TomorrowWorld in Atlanta, a guy dropped to his knees and asked his girlfriend to marry him.
But it’s not about who stops by but what the experience seems to mean to people.
The first time we sat there, we saw it… how it changes people, makes them feel better,” said Cai. “People connect and feel heard.” Scotto and Cai say how people confess things to them that they haven’t even told their friends or family about because they’re total strangers and because they know they won’t be judged. “Everybody let’s their guard down, everybody lets loose.”
Cai is quick to point out “we’re both technologists and have nothing against social media, but we also see what this means to people.”
In fact, the operation has all the technological initiatives of any brand today—a website, a Facebook page, an Instagram following, and live feeds to name a few.
To think it all started by happenstance back in late July.
“We were walking through Williamsburg without anything to do and found this couch that was just sitting with the trash by the side of the road,” said Scotto. “We decided to sit down for a bit and then found a pizza box in the garbage and wrote ‘free conversations’ on it to see what happened.”
They sat there for a while wondering if anyone would stop and join in and did they ever. “For 7 hour straight, people were talking to us,” said Scotto.
“It started with one person, and by midnight, we had probably talked to over 100 people,” added Cai. “We had a girl who had just been hired at Google, a family from New Jersey, and a group of Christian women stopped talk to us.” He describes how after some discussion, “the women circled the couch, holding hands and started praying for us,” said Cai.
Another visitor to the couch was an actress who sat down and taught them some acting lessons on the couch.
“Everyone we met had an interesting story to tell, everyone had value in their own unique way,” said Scotto.
Since starting FreeConvo, they are impressed by the wide range of people who probably would never interact normally, but come together in this unique setting and find common interests or things to talk about.
Tony describes a rapper that stopped by one time, and while rapping, an older lady on the couches started throwing him rhymes. Another guy talked about how he had just started talking with a girl and they both started showing each other their artwork online. They ended up making a date to go to a “drink and sketch” class at the Society of Illustrators.
Both platonic and romantic relationships seem to form on the couches. “People sit down strangers and leave together,” said Cai. “Not one person leaves the couches feeling worse,” said Cai. “We like to say we’re a positive energy generator,” added Scotto.
People who sit down for some free conversation do seem energized by and even grateful for the experience of just engaging in conversation.
Zoya Sait, 21, of Berkley California said, “It’s so inviting, brings people together, and creates special moments,” she said. “People don’t generally even look at each other, but when I first saw the sign it was like ‘Yeah I would like to talk to you, about anything, even how your day was.’” Sait was so moved by the experience, that she has become a volunteer for FreeConvo and hopes to start it up in Berkley when she returns.
Another volunteer, Jennie Liang, 26, of Manhattan, told the story of one guy she was talking to on the couch said that what he hated about the city was that you could walk around the city all day and not talk to anyone. Her take on FreeConvo is “it’s a lot about helping the community be more unified.”
Anthony Vareha, 20 of Houston, who works for NASA, said, “It’s odd that people almost have to be told to socialize, but once they are given an excuse to, they seem to almost need to.”
Anthony also noticed, “not one person was on their smart phone the entire time I was on the couch.” Several people mentioned this.
Arsen Grigoryan, an actor from Armenia and in NYC to study English, sat down for company and to see what was going on. After a few hours chatting with different people on the couch he said, “It’s an amazing thing. This was a present because I have to practice my English.”
Indeed when asked to describe the experience, people leave say things like, “that was just great,” “wonderful fun,” “limitless.”
Jason Lang, 30, of Spanish Harlem, turned 30 on the couch today, with everyone singing happy birthday to him. Leaving he commented, “this has been a really great experience.”
“It’s kind of grown so fast. We really couldn’t do this without our volunteers,” said Scotto who is quick to point out that it’s really the volunteers who are continuing to drive FreeConvo. Volunteers currently number 12 and are growing.
And FreeConvo just went global. “Just last week, some guys from London stopped to talk us for awhile and went back home and launched their own free conversation event in the UK,” said Scotto.