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How Big Cities Can Lead to Small Thoughts

April 1, 2012


Ryan Sager in WSJ:

Cities are famous for being incubators of creativity and ideas, fueled by diversity and constant exposure to people unlike ourselves. But two new studies on friendship and people’s cellphone habits complicate that picture by offering hints that the bigger our pond, the smaller we may make our world.

At a conference on social networks earlier this month, researchers from the Norwegian telecom provider Telenor presented findings based on the electronic records of nearly three million phones on its network over a period of years. They discovered that users of iPhones and Android devices constitute two distinct “tribes,” with far more contact among members of each tribe than between tribes. If three of your friends have iPhones, for instance, you’re six times more likely to own one yourself. Android phones displayed a similar but weaker effect.

What’s most illuminating, though, is how this effect plays out geographically. Whereas iPhones dominate the cities, Android does better in smaller towns and rural areas. (The research was on Norwegian consumers but matches up with surveys showing that American Android users are more likely to live in rural areas than are iPhone users.)

Why might this be? “The iPhone is a very flashy product,” says Pål Roe Sundsøy, one of the researchers on the Telenor team. People in cities have denser social networks and more interactions with people who live close to them, so trendy products spread faster among them—along with peer pressure to have the latest, hottest gizmo.

There’s also a darker side to this effect: In cities, ideas and opinions, like product preferences, can spread virally and congeal into conventional wisdom. Cities thus risk becoming incubators of groupthink. (More)

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