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Virtual Dinners: Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers

September 27, 2013 | Joshua Parker

virtual dinner party

Story and images by Ashoka / Forbes

Up-and-coming social innovator, Eric Maddox (@VirtualDinner), is harnessing globalization by bringing people together for meaningful conversations over dinner--even if they live as far apart as Beirut and Mongolia. (But, that's a perk of modern technology.)

How we view the world is largely shaped by the media.  What begins as untouched quotes and footage is broken apart and edited, then presented through television, computers, and newspapers. The problem, according to Eric, is that we are seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Eric is challenging this paradigm. In order to break down the barriers of our oftentimes divided worlds, Eric helps to bring people together to break bread through videoconferencing calls. These are real people discussing family, politics and culture--always in English and always live.

virtual dinner party

The Virtual Dinner Guest Project began in 2012 when Eric, a documentary filmmaker, created a short film about the Mexico-US border. He connected a family in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, with a smaller gathering of people in Santa Fe, New Mexico, using videoconferencing technology (Skype in this case because it was and remains low-cost). The groups sat around their tables enjoying dinner while discussing how each culture viewed the other. They discussed topics ranging from the violence plaguing Mexico surrounding the drug trade to more benign conversations delving into the details of daily life--such as what they were having for dinner. It was storytelling in its most raw form.

That first virtual dinner solidified Eric's belief that the most effective means of breaking down social walls and stereotypes is though direct, unedited communication.

From its humble beginnings, Virtual Dinner Guest has grown to reach people in fourteen countries, fulfilling a project aim of "replacing the evening news with evening conversation." "Why food?" I asked Eric when he visited Ashoka's DC office this past summer. He replied,

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