2010 February

Social Networks and Creativity. Why Geneva Might be a Better Model than New York

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How do you bump into new people in a social network?

[ The social graph - how do I meet new people here? ] I have been back in New York for less than 48 hours and have twice bumped into the person that is the contact link to the people I most want to meet when I’m here. This kind of serendipitous interaction almost never happens in Geneva, where I’m now living. I suspect that its occurrence is non-linear (i.e. it requires a certain critical mass of interaction for it to happen) and that this rather than planned meetings are what make cities centers of creativity and innovation. Understanding this process perhaps has important implications for the design of social networks.

[ Chance Meeting (in NY), by Martin Lewis ] In some ways, this is obvious, but the distinction between planned and unplanned interaction has definite consequences. Creativity is often viewed as an active process of invention by intelligent and creative types, however what if it was the other way around – a question of accident and any person of average intelligence being in the right place at the right time?
As an example, I became an architect (something that contrary to popular misconception is largely an art not a science), having originally come from a scientific background. People who are scientists often look for a description in words as to why a work of art is interesting, its why rather uninteresting artists like Escher are nerdy favorites – the idea is more interesting than the picture. I started architecture by producing designs that all had a story but weren’t visually original, but I remember the day at architecture school when I really ‘got it’, when I was able to design something new rather than the kind of superficial gimmick that a rational approach to design always produces. The way that I designed something original was by accident – I created enough mess around me that I made a mistake that actually turned out to be interesting.

[ Escher - the scientist's artist ] By creating an environment where mistakes were likely to happen and by editing the errors that arose, I was able to be creative. Not only that, but the creation of mess that reduced my ability to be organized but increased my ability to do new things, was a perfect cliche of the creative stereotype. What if the bohemian mess and individualism weren’t a byproduct of creativity, but the thing that enabled creativity in the first place, the thing that allowed accidents to be selected to create something that could not have been imagined?

[ Francis Bacon's studio - Francis was a painter not an accountant, and his workplace was messy ] This idea of accidental design, is how Murray Gell-Mann describes the process of evolution: as “the accumulation of frozen accidents”. It means artists should perhaps not get too big-headed, that if humans can be created without a designer god that art can be created without a human with extraordinary powers. It means that innovation and design is a by product of selection of accidents and dependent as much on a particular environment as the people who occupy it.

[ Murray Gell-Mann - Evolution happens through the accumulation of frozen accidents ] What is important for creativity is an environment that allows for accidents. But accidents are important for things beyond the creative arts: for meeting people and getting things done, from doing deals to dating – for social networking. Social networking requires chance interactions, but does this mean that social networks need to replicate the bumping into new people that a city with the size and cultural openness of New York offers over Geneva.
The online world is more artificial than the real world, by definition, and therefore social interaction can be stilted and somewhat unsatisfactory, even if it can span the globe instantaneously. From flame wars to the fact that sarcasm rarely goes down well online, the online experience of communication is not quite as interesting as the real world, its a bit like living in Geneva rather than New York.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from Geneva rather than New York when it comes to finding out how to create serendipity in a more artificial social environment? In which case, the thing to look at might be golf. Intermingling in Geneva is largely through sporting activities in the mountains and on the lake, and as elsewhere, on the golf course.

[ Golf - not exactly hip or bohemian ] Despite requiring a massive amount of time and money – taking most of the day off ‘work’ for the same hourly rate that people earn, golf ironically shares something in common with casual bumping into people and the resultant creativity. When you play golf with someone, you spend several hours with them but there is no requirement to communicate, you can either play golf, or you can play golf and chat. It creates a very simple framework for deals to happen by accident, though unplanned unstructured communication without pressure.

[ Geneva - If you can make it happen here you can make it happen anywhere ] Golf allows for people to communicate without a prior agenda and deals to be done serendipitously. And it allows for this to happen in places as far removed from the creative enclaves of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn and its bohemian denizens as a Swiss golf course infested with private bankers. If you can make it happen here, you can make it happen anywhere. In other words, golf creates a creative networking environment without requiring a creative environment or creative people. And like the online world, it all make believe, taking place in a virtual recreation of the Scottish countryside in places like the Nevada desert. Pretty amazing really.

[ Virtual reality - a Las Vegas golf course recreates a quasi Scottish landscape in the Nevada desert ] For social networking to create a replicatable model for serendipitous interaction which overcomes the giant drawback of the fact that people aren’t actually there, perhaps its needs something more akin to golf than a bohemian bar and perhaps it needs to look at how people manage to network in a place that is difficult, like Geneva, rather than one which is easy, like New York.