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16 May 2007

The geography of passion

The internet is a different kind of social space in which our common interests are the things that connect us rather than physical proximity. Online it’s less important where we are or where we come from but what we care about. We might call this the ‘geography of passion’.

Whether it's a support group to find missing people after a humanitarian disaster, or a fan club discussing the career highlights of post-war human cannonballs from the North-East, like everything in life, personal passions span the sublime and the ridiculous. According to Henley Centre research, sixty percent of Britons already have less in common with their neighbours than the folk who share their hobbies, now the internet lets them find like minds in Auckland as easily as Acacia Avenue.

But this virtual georgaphy is more important than a new way to form strong or weak social ties. Relationships between people or nations often break down because of poor communication. Not just in the functional sense of information exchange, but the ability to see one another’s point of view, to empathise with someone and appreciate where they’re coming from.

The identity of the modern individual is complex with many overlapping loyalties and affiliations. Reviewing Amartya Sen’s book on this subject, “Identity and Violence”, The Economist wrote: “Human allegiances - to family, friends, colleagues, city, nation, faith, knowledge and ideals, you name it - are real and essential to people's lives." They constantly compete for attention and blur together: city or state, club versus country, work / life balance, etc.

Often, as Sen himself points out, it suits authorities to define people in single, all-purpose groups like Muslim or Westerner: "a Hutu laborer from Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis . . . he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer and a human being."

The internet’s geography of passion offers us great, new possibilities to focus on what we have in common instead of what we don’t. It makes it easy for people to track down groups across the world to which they can belong, to relate to others on many different dimensions, and to find those who share parts of their identities and passions (which includes having stand-up, knock-down, ding-dong arguments about things they disagree on but feel passionately about).

Just as tagging gives people control of the language they use to describe the world, it’s now possible to liberate themselves from existing classifications and form their own, propaganda-free identity groups. There are many sides to every story and on the web communities and hyperlinks let us pick the camera angle.

In some ways it’s only though the internet that we’re becoming truly connected as global citizens. Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. Perhaps we can formulate a variation: the likelihood of all people finding common ground is proportional to the square of the connections between them. In other words: the more ways people can relate to each other, the more chances they have to find out what makes them alike rather than what makes them different. (Any ideas on what to call this would be welcome – “More’s Law” perhaps? ;-).

In the simplest terms: more connections lead to better communication between people. Ultimately we are all the same and the more opportunities we have to see how similar we are the better.


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Andrew Curry


This is an irritating, sad, geeky point but... I know that Metcalfe's Law is always quoted as being that the value of network is proportional to the square of the number of users, but it doesn't make sense.

The value of a network is equal to the number of connections in it, which is n x (n-1)/2. So a network of 2 people has one connection (and no real value), a network of 10 has 45 connections, and so on. It goes up pretty fast, and has a 'squared-type' function at its heart. But the proportions aren't quite right.

If I were really sad I'd go back to Metcalfe's papers (with a 'e' BTW, he said almost as geekily) and work out whether I've misunderstood something or whether the 'squared thing' came from populisers trying to simplify the (not very complicated) arithmetic.



Andy Hobsbawm

Fair enough! Ahem, thanks also for pointing out the misspelling - now fixed ;-[

Sophie Greenfield

Seems to me that the geography of passion has a real world equivalent...desire lines.
Something I've been interested in for a long time. http://cleverbynature.blogspot.com/2004_11_14_archive.html
By the way - I am looking forward to reading your new book.
All my best
Sophie G

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