It has become a cliché that the world is flat as famously described by Thomas Friedman.
But new research by Barry Wellman, a communications professor at the University of Toronto, suggests just the opposite.
Wellman studied millions of tweets and discovered they're not evenly distributed at all. Instead, people are likely to tweet to others locally or, and this is the really interesting part, to people in similar cities globally. So, New Yorkers are more likely to communicate with people in London than Buffalo, and those in Toronto with others in L.A. instead of, say, St. Louis. Wellman found that Twitter use follows airline routes. The heavier-traveled routes had more connections.
This was a small story on NPR yesterday. But it has profound impacts for those of us who think about the future of cities.
It reinforces an idea that has been taking shape for awhile now. It's the notion that, despite all of our new social media, face-to-face contacts still matter. People tweet with others they know and they know them through meeting in the flesh.
What this means for a place like Madison is that we can't depend on Twitter and Facebook and Skype to connect us to the world. We need to be physically connected to major metro areas. Direct flights to Las Vegas and Tampa are nice, but they don't mean much to the future of our city. Direct flights to Washington, New York, Denver, San Francisco and so on really matter.
It also underscores, painfully, what a huge economic development blunder it was for Gov. Walker to give up our connection on the Chicago to Minneapolis high-speed rail line.
Finally, the research reminds us once again that cities and place matters. As Witold Rybczynski has written about Jane Jacobs' neighborhood:
(Hudson Street) provided the venue for a continuous conversation... kept alive by frequent random collisions of people and ideas.
Cities are by definition places where people come into contact with one another. Physically. And that flesh and blood contact has not become irrelevant. It's more important than ever.