Contributing Editors

Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
Founder and Board Member
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
Executive Director of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone

Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
Independent Research Consultant
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Scott Harshbarger

Scott Harshbarger
Senior Counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP
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Vivien Li

Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

No Man Is an Island, Updated

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
By Edward Glaeser

Will information technology make face-to-face contact and the places that enable that contact obsolete? Or will improvements in information technology make meeting face-to-face more effective and more valuable?

The story of Facebook, told by Ben Mezrich in “The Accidental Billionaires” and now on movie screens as “The Social Network,” supports the view that the Internet is making in-person interactions more important, not less. That is good news for cities, like New York, that thrive by connecting smart people.

Just like e-mail, Facebook makes it easier to maintain connections with people who are far away. In principle, Facebook allows all sorts of virtual friendships with people that you have never physically met. If virtual friendship is sufficiently satisfying, then Facebook may make it unnecessary ever to be in the same room.

In the awkward language of economics, Facebook could be a substitute for face-to-face interaction. But Facebook might also complement a meeting in person.

The Internet site is, after all, a tool for managing friendships and transmitting information, like pictures of a summer holiday. Perhaps that information makes face-to-face connections more rewarding. Perhaps that information enables people to form deeper bonds that lead to more physical meetings or to find people who would be particularly fun or rewarding to meet in person. As such, it isn’t clear if Facebook will increase or decrease the demand for face-to-face interactions.

When theory is ambiguous, we need to turn to the data, and it seems empirically that Facebook supports, rather than replaces, in-person meetings. For example, surveys of Facebook users have found that the use of “Facebook to meet previously unknown people remained low and stable” and that “students view the primary audience for their profile to be people with whom they share an offline connection.” In other words, Facebook seems to be typically used to connect people who have connected through some other medium, like being in the same class or meeting at a party, which seems to suggest complementarity between meeting face-to-face and connecting on Facebook.

Another paper looks at whether people who are good at face-to-face interactions made greater use of social-networking sites. The study examined a group of 13- to 14-year-olds in 1998-9 and rated their ability to connect well in person with a close friend. In 2006-8, those same people were asked about their involvement with social-networking sites.

The people who were better at interacting face-to-face in adolescence had more friends on social-networking sites as young adults. Again, electronic interactions seem to complement face-to-face connections.

The importance of face-to-face connections also appears in the story Mr. Mezrich tells about Facebook’s origins. In dispute is whether or how much the ideas for a social-networking site of the Facebook co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, benefited from face-to-face meetings at Harvard with the Winklevoss twins. But there is little debate that Facebook’s early development benefited from collaboration among Mr. Zuckerberg, his roommate Dustin Moskovitz and their friend Eduardo Saverin.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s connection with Sean Parker, the Napster innovator who played an important role as Facebook’s early chief executive and who helped secure large-scale financing for the site, seems to have developed through a meal in New York and an encounter on the streets of Palo Alto, Calif.

Indeed, Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision to move to Silicon Valley reminds us of a great paradox. The technology industry has, more than any other sector, the ability to connect over vast distances. Yet that industry is often associated with a single place. The resolution of that paradox is that even with e-mail and the Internet, face-to-face meetings remain the best way to communicate really complex ideas.

There are big returns in high technology to coming up with the new, new thing, and being in Silicon Valley increases your chances of meeting someone who will help you get a great idea.

Facebook does enable friendships across vast distances, but it seems to have been the child of spatial proximity. Like most great ideas, it wasn’t the production of a solitary, isolated genius, but rather a collaborative effort. The spatial concentration of talent, first at Harvard and then in Silicon Valley, helped that collaboration.

In one sense, Facebook helps conquer distance. In another sense, it shows that value of being in the right place — a dense cluster of smart people.

Facebook’s story helps us to think more clearly about what electronic technology will mean for cities and universities. The simple view is that the Internet makes it easier to connect without meeting in person, and that view suggests that new technology is bad for places that enable face-to-face meetings.

The more complicated view, which seems to be true, is that changes in technology have created great opportunity for people with new ideas.

New ideas aren’t created by lone wolves, but rather by smart people who get smarter by learning from their neighbors. As long as humanity values innovation, cities will thrive by enabling people to learn from each other. 


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