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The Internet has dramatically changed our ability to communicate. It’s easier today than it’s ever been to talk to, e-mail, or IM friends, colleagues, and family on the other side of the planet. For this reason, we’re often told that the world is shrinking and that the Internet has created a borderless, global village in which geographical proximity is playing an increasingly smaller role.

But this received wisdom is wrong, say Jacob Goldenberg and Moshe Levy at the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. “We argue that the opposite is the case: in our contemporary IT-intensive world, geographical proximity has become an even stronger force than ever before,” they say.

And they make a persuasive case. Goldenberg and Levy say that while it is just as easy to e-mail somebody who lives on the same street as somebody on the other side of the world, it turns out that we have a huge preference for sending messages over shorter distances.

They studied the messaging habits of 100,000 Facebook users by zip code and say that the volume of e-mail traffic as a function of geographical distance follows an inverse power law. They collected data on the location of the receivers of more than 4,500 e-mail messages, finding a similar distribution.

Their conclusion is that far from reducing the importance of geographical location, electronic communication appears to have increased it, probably because people swap more messages with those they have personal interaction with.

If that’s true, why have we gone so wrong in thinking that the world is getting smaller? One source of confusion, argue Goldenberg and Levy, is the famous six-degrees-of-separation experiments originally performed by Stanley Milgram with letters, and later by Steve Strogatz and Duncan Watts using e-mail. These seem to indicate that a “small world” effect is at work in social networks.

But Goldenberg and Levy point out that most of Milgram’s letters were lost; only a dozen or so reached their targets. And in Strogatz and Watts’s experiment, they say, only 384 out of 24,163 e-mail chains were completed. That suggests that there may be more barriers to communication than we thought.

A lot of thinking about economics and numerous business plans are based on the idea that society has become a “small world.” There may need to be some hurried rethinking if that premise turns out to be wrong.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0906.3202: Distance Is Not Dead: Social Interaction and Geographical Distance in the Internet Era

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