Something I have been noticing in my own virtual connections is that, whether on Facebook or Twitter, I am conversing more and more with people I associate with IRL. I’ve been wondering why this is, and I think it has to do with the mainstreaming of these two social networks. When I began using FB in 2007 and Twitter in 2008, they were still the domains of early adopters, who tended to be geographically dispersed. However, as these social networks have moved into the mainstream, there are many more people who I associated with face to face on a regular basis that I also communicate with in these forums. ICT’s have always been a great way to geographically shrink the world, and I certainly do still have strong connections with people on the other side of the world that I have never met f2f. But increasingly my inner trusted virtual circle – the people who I have the most interactive discussions with – are people who I am in fairly close physical proximity to.
In the language of economics, the core question is whether face-to-face interactions and electronic connections are substitutes or complements
In our original paper, we argued that the number of human interactions was hardly a zero-sum game, and more electronic interactions didn’t have to mean fewer meetings face-to-face.
If the new media increased the number of relationships – the connectedness of the world – more than it decreased personal meetings within any given relationship, then better electronic communications could increase the number of face-to-face meetings.
In later research and in my book “Triumph of the City” (The Penguin Press, 2011), I emphasized a slightly different idea: electronic connections and face-to-face connections are complements because new technologies increase the returns to innovation.
Better electronic interactions make it easier to produce new ideas in low-cost areas (think New York fashion designers’ ideas that are manufactured in China) or to sell creativity worldwide (think the global success of “Avatar”), and that means bigger returns to innovation.
As long as interpersonal contact – the sharing of knowledge at close quarters – remains an important ingredient in innovation (as it seemed to be in Facebook), then better electronic connections can make face-to-face contact, and innovation-assisting cities, more important.
We also cited earlier research that found that people tended to call people who were physically close: in the 1970s, more than 40 percent of phone calls connected places less than two miles apart. More recent data from Japan confirmed that proximity and phoning seemed to complement each other.
It shouldn’t be surprising that people both call and meet with their friends, and that suggests a certain kind of complementarity.
Another piece of evidence suggesting that information technology and face-to-face contact are complements is the geographic concentration of the tech cluster. America’s cutting-edge computer scientists have access to the best electronic means of long-distance connection, yet they have come together to form the world’s most famous industrial cluster: Silicon Valley.
A similar cluster exists in Bangalore.
In my own industry as well, there is little evidence that long-distance learning is eliminating demand for the high-intensity in-person education that places like Princeton and Yale provide. Anyone who teaches knows that good lecturing is far more than proclaiming wisdom from on high.
The teacher constantly struggles to understand what is getting across, and that’s far easier at close quarters. The more complex the idea, the more you need to rely on the rich cues that humans have evolved for signaling confusion or comprehension.
Humanity is a profoundly social species, with a deep ability to learn from people nearby. I believe that the future will only make that asset more important.