I was chagrined to read this fall that what had passed for astounding coincidence in my life had really been some game theory model that mathematically predicted seemingly chance meetings and the often delightful discovery of connections that were likely to ensue. Full disclosure: I was more than chagrined; I was downright devastated. And why not? I had built my life around serendipity. Never contriving it, of course, just relishing its element of surprise to the fullest.
And now, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, shot my ethereal encounters down with one trigger pull, claiming that the odds of bumping into people you know or who know someone you know are actually remarkably probable. Or so state the laws of probability.
But for all of his technological prowess and adeptness at explaining the nuances of social media in a compelling way, Shirky and I part ways when it comes to some of the value he ascribes to social networking. You see, while the odds might favor me unwittingly taking a seat on a plane next to a friend of the best man at my wedding, it was our engagement in casual conversation that brought this fact to light.
Said man and I were in flight for barely an hour on a short jaunt from Kansas City to St. Louis. In that space of time, he and I small-talked long enough about work, where we hailed from, and why we were both headed to St. Louis (he enroute home and me to a conference) that we eventually got around to discovering that Wayne, my husband’s college roommate, was a common link between us. We both found the discovery slightly amazing.
Now, had I sat down next to him and showed him a list of all the people I knew and had him show me a list of all the people he knew, we could have gotten to Wayne a lot faster. But would it have been nearly as interesting or sociolinguistically complex? I doubt it.
Is small talk the 20th century version of the handwritten letters of previous centuries and telegrams but a quaint precursor of text messages? Are the continually evolving modes of communication which necessarily hinge on available technology always bound to upend existing sociolinguistic protocols? The lack of phone booths with doors and the now ubiquitous Facebook would make it appear so.
Which leads me to wonder, what value is there now in such chance or, if you insist, utterly predictable encounters with other people? Has the sociocultural paradigm shift spawned by social media rendered us mere algorithmic blips to each other?
And, frankly, where exactly does all of this leave Kevin Bacon?