Logic of Life, Social Media, and Why I Went to SMX

The book I picked up (Logic of Life by Tim Harford) on the way to SMX Advanced had a chapter on cities that somehow contained excellent insights into:

  • Why I attended the conference
  • Social Media (one of the conference’s key issues)
  • WikiAnswers (one of the sites we’re trying to make even better)
  • Living near Jerusalem
  • American exceptionalism (a topic close to my heart)

Harford was analyzing cities, and whether they’d become more or less relevant with all the new ways people could connect. He started by claiming that cities benefit from a “knowledge spillover.” Basically accelerated interactions with so many people leads to a lot more knowledge transfers. And this is especially true for internet entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, etc.

So Tim asks, is physical proximity less important in our wired world?

And he convincingly answers no, it’s probably even more important. Virtual connections generally support rather than replace physical proximity.

Take the SMX Twitter feed. Read the real time chatter, click through to the excellent write-ups by brilliant writers like Lisa Barone, Brian Hancock, and me (thought I’d slip that in) … and you’d think there was no reason to attend physically.

And yet what you get from the non-attenders on the feed is not “Thanks for the great write-ups, saved me from having to attend,” but rather “I can’t believe I missed this, I’m definitely going next year.”

We’re people. We still crave the real contact. And reading the Twitter feeds and the blogs doesn’t replace that, it actually makes us feel the need for physical proximity with our community more acutely.

Now the complementary relationship can go both ways. Social Media sites can play the role of a virtual city, with knowledge transfers and sometimes even more importantly emotional support. Last year we had a get together with some of the top WikiAnswers supervisors. I learned that some of these people had really bonded online, even helping each other through personal crises. The WikiAnswers community was as real a support group for them as any physical meeting could be. In this case, I think occasionally physical meetings could be great to supplement the virtual ones, and our lead product manager and community leaders have been pushing for MeetUps, which I hope we’ll start having.

Next related riff: I live in a suburb of Jerusalem. The wired world lets me work in this industry despite being on a different continent than most of our community. And yet it still involves frequent trips to the U.S. And when too much time goes by without face-time between our offices, we notice tempers rising and misunderstandings multiplying. So how has the virtual world changed my life? Without it I’d probably only be part of the Jerusalem local economy. With it, I’m far more connected to the U.S.-centered economy, and therefore travel to NY far more often (I’m writing this from the airport). So the virtual world provided an opportunity that was previously only available in the physical world — but that opportunity then greatly increased my physical visits to New York.

Final riff: American exceptionalism. Once again, because so much of what America did can now be done in other countries, or by foreign nationals on U.S. soil, some people think that America, like cities, will decline. I think the opposite is true. The more the rest of the world benefits from and contributes to industries dominated by U.S. companies, their growth strengthens not only themselves but also the United States. The U.S., the world’s most receptive nation to immigrants, and to other people’s ideas and contributions, will continue to grow as others embrace America’s values. And make no mistake, no matter how much even “allies” condemn “America’s values” as cowboy consumerism, etc., they’ve still largely embraced the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness values where America still leads the way, no matter what its critics say. But that’s an issue for another post. For here let me just posit the parallel: just as the growth of virtual hubs makes the physical hubs (cities) even more important, the growth of countries devoted to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness will help America grow.