I finished yesterday reading the book “The logic of life” from Tim Harford (the author from the Undercover Economist) and while not explicitly touching the topic of social media, he does pose some very interesting points about the dynamics of cities, which brings me to this blog post.
If I got Tim’s point correctly, the idea is that while the level of intelligence should be more or less equal between people that live in the countryside and the ones that live in the cities, there are far more innovative ideas and inventions produced in the city. The mere fact that you have a dense concentration of people is already enough. Think about London, NYC, Silicon Valley, etc. The more people you have, the more likely it is that you will bump into other people with great ideas.
Now comes the interesting part: it relies on the fact that you get this information FOR FREE. Just by chatting with a bystander, following a discussion in a library or put it in geek terms: tweetups, unconferences, bar camps, code camps and the like. One of the things I don’t like of living in a rather small city like Utrecht instead of San Francisco or New York City is that we have few of these meetings, partially since we lack also the numbers to attend these meetings. Once in a while you have something in Amsterdam, but overall it’s pretty poor. A whole different story in SF, NYC or London where you have frequently these kind of geeky get togethers.
So does that mean that we don’t need social media anymore as I posed in the title? Does my fellow blogger Rick Mans @rickmans need to be worried for his job? Luckily for Rick and the multi-billion dollar social media industry: NO. Tim Harford even states in his book that thanks to the help of Facebook and email it is far more easy to organize people together and these kind of tools even have the result that people meet even more frequently in real life because after all, no technology can replace direct human interaction.
Think about it for a minute. No matter how great the video conferencing tools are, there is always something spontaneous that gets lost. The big value of a workshop or get together where you are physically in the same room is that you are more receptive to the 93 % of non-verbal communication. Even more, I dare to say that the fact that you are together in a single space unites the brainpower and leads to building up on each other’s ideas far more easily and quicker than with remote conferencing tools.
So, to the relief of some people I can say: social media is not going to replace physical get togethers, but only reinforcing them….

Lee Provoost is a Cloud Computing Strategist and expert group leader Microsoft/SAP-Java/SAP integration at Capgemini. You can follow his ongoing stream of thoughts on Twitter http://twitter.com/leeprovoost.