Cities can be lonely places. That's a truth woven through many of the seminal creative works of the last 100 years, from Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
Why is that important? Because the story of the industrialised world is a story, in part, about the rise of the city. In the West, cities have proven themselves to be vast machines for the propagation of modernity and the affluence that has been associated with it. In so doing, they have entrenched themselves in our way of life. Now that story is being repeated - at greatly increased speed and intensity - across the developing world.
Consider this: 62 years ago, New York and Tokyo were the only "mega-cities" of more than 10 million. Today, there are 23, and the United Nations forecasts the rise of nine new megacities in Asia alone by 2025.
That amounts to hundreds of millions of people dislocated from families and rural social networks, set loose amid the long working hours and atomised lifestyle of the 21st-century city.
All of which helps to explain the skyrocketing popularity - in the developing world as well as the developed - of an online phenomenon. That is, platforms and apps that turn online social connections into real-world sociability. Online connectivity - long hailed for its ability to put us in touch with anyone, anywhere in the world, instantly - is now being put to work to help us connect to the people in the same town, or even the same street.
Consider, for example, Here on Biz (www.hereon.biz), a new smartphone app that allows LinkedIn users to connect with other members of the site around them. The app keeps track of where users are and who they are connected to on the site. Fire up the app and users get real-time recommendations about others near them they might like to meet. The founders Nick Smoot and Allen Hartwig say they created the app after realising how much time they killed in airports, waiting for delayed flights.
Meanwhile, Spotwish Go! (www.spotwish.com) is an app recently launched in Brazil that allows users to specify interests and connect with others around them who share those interests. Perfect for the many thousands each year who join the 19 million already living in the greater São Paulo area.
And then there's the Chinese smartphone instant chat giant WeChat (www.wechatapp.com). WeChat recently launched two new functions both intended to allow the serendipitous meeting of nearby strangers. Users can throw out a "message in a bottle" and see if anyone nearby replies. Or they can shake their smartphone and be put in instant contact with someone within half a mile who is shaking their phone at the same instant. WeChat says there have been more than 100 million shakes since the function was launched in April.
Relentless pursuit of affluence has pushed billions of us into the cities and towards increasing atomisation. Now, billions more in the developing world are in the midst of the same story. But the human yearning for real, physically present human others will never abate and it may just turn out that the most powerful way in which always-on, global connectivity will serve us will be in helping to bring us a little closer to those just an arm's length away.
David Mattin is a senior analyst at www.trendspotting.com.
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