The set up is simple. On any given summer night, you may stumble upon Jeremy Mulder and Adam Hess in Ann Arbor’s Graffiti Alley, wielding sharpies. They stand beside two large pieces of paper, one titled “Smiles” and the other “Eye Contact.” The space below each title is adorned with tally marks, each representing a micro moment of connection.
As passersby walk past the alley, Mulder and Hess make tally marks for every smile and instance of eye contact they witness.
“I saw that, thank you for playing,” Mulder says to a group of students who make eye contact while passing by. As the students respond with smiles of recognition, Hess chimes in: “Right? Nice! See! That’s great. Two? Mark that down. Three? Yes!” Laughter fills the alley as the tally marks multiply.
Mulder and Hess call their project Micro Moments of Magic. The idea sprouted during the winter of 2023, which was particularly brutal across the Upper Midwest.
“We had a pandemic’s worth of not connecting, and a Midwest winter’s worth of not connecting, and so the thought was, we could feel that people needed a reason to connect,” said Mulder.
On their busiest day so far, Mulder and Hess collected 1818 smiles and 1784 instances of eye contact. But contrary to what many people ask, it’s not for a study.
“We’re in a college town, so many people ask, “Is this a sociology study?” said Mulder. “We’ve agreed that says more about them. They’re usually sociology majors.”
“When people come up and ask us what this is about, we’ve said many different things for the sake of creativity,” says Hess. “But it’s really just fun engagement.”
Mulder and Hess have been visiting the alley 2-3 times a week to do Micro Moments of Magic, mostly because, as Hess says, “It feels delightful.”
There is something special in the energy created by the project. As people pass by the duo for their second time in the evening, they cheer seeing how many more tallies have been added. “There’s a lot of frequent fliers. Because it feels good!” says Hess.
Passersby request to take photos with the paper or even take turns adding tallies themselves. The smiles become contagious.
“We poach smiles too. If they’re already smiling, we’ll count it too, whether it was us or not,” says Hess. “We’re not taking credit, we’re just saying that they’re smiling.”
It feels remarkable to see how small yet intentional connections can bring about a big change in people’s days. However, Mulder and Hess are not surprised.
“I think in the Midwest, there’s a lot of ‘elevator culture,’” says Mulder. “Put your head down, look at your feet, that kind of thing. Even something as simple as writing ‘eye contact’ or ‘smile’ at the top of a piece of paper gives people permission to come out of their shell.”
Hess, who recently made a transition out of a career as a nurse, enjoys finding a way to continue to help people in some form.
“We’re collecting all these smiles. They happened, when maybe they wouldn’t have before,” says Hess. “If we made a million extra smiles, would that have an effect on the culture? I don’t know. Maybe! Especially if we had other people on other posts!”
As the sun sets, the duo runs out of space on their paper. They preserve each sheet, marking them with the date and time, creating a collection of connections.
“If one person says, ‘That was great,’ then I feel like we’re doing it all for the right reason,” says Hess. “Because we did it so that one person who needed something, got it. But what did we do, really?”
Perhaps they’re making magic, one micro connection at a time.
Connect with Micro Moments of Magic on Instagram.