Monday, January 21, 2008

Sex and Distance

I blogged about Glaeser's new paper on the impact of communication technology on distance over at 7 Rivers Region Econ. But here I wanted to note Tim Harford's excellent example involving the market for sex.

But I think the truth is more profound than either of those glib explanations: Technology makes it more fun and more profitable to live and work close to the people who matter most to your life and work. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, an expert on city economies, argues that communications technology and face-to-face interactions are complements like salt and pepper, rather than substitutes like butter and margarine. Paradoxically, your cell phone, email, and Facebook networks are making it more attractive to meet people in the flesh.

The most obvious example is online dating. With sites like BBW (Big Beautiful Women) Datefinder and Senior People Meet, it's a lot easier to find like-minded flames. But that's not much use unless you live within driving range of your 98 percent-compatible love connection. The kind of contact that follows online winking is far from virtual.

It follows that matchmaking is most effective in densely populated areas, where there are plenty of fish but an awfully big sea. If you live in Los Angeles, online dating is the killer app. If you live in a small town, you've likely already met all your potential mates at church or a bar.

Of course, the rest of life isn't like courting. Or is it? In big cities, our communication tools are especially helpful because they keep us from getting lost in the crowd (which is not something you worry about in a one-street town). There are even services that tell you where your friends are by locating their cell signals.

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