There’s a back-and-forth going on at Hacker News over Peter Shankman’s post, “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse.” First, read Shankman’s post, because what Morton’s did is, in fact, amazing, and I say this in an age where most of what people call “amazing” is, in fact, not. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise, beyond noting that he sent this Tweet as a joke: “Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)”
The top Hacker News commenter said, “With modern communication systems, flying in airplanes to lunch meetings and flying back that night is such an absurd waste of resources it qualifies as obscene.” Someone else disagreed: “The difference of quality between meeting face to face and through a webcam is so high that it’s sometimes worth taking a plane just for one lunch.”
The second person is right: sometimes the quality of a face-to-face meeting is worth a plane trip. As Paul Graham said in “Cities and Ambition:” “The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.” You don’t reproduce the same effect meeting someone in person when you “meet” them online. This doesn’t just apply to romantic partners, either, although that’s an obvious example of the effect described: how many people want to see their lovers solely on the Internet?
The high-bandwidth physical world argues for meetings, and I suspect Shankman wasn’t just going to New Jersey for the meeting—he was going to communicate how important the meeting was. You don’t just spend hours on a plane for something frivolous; he was sending a signal and reaping face-to-face rewards. If someone flew to Tucson solely to meet with me, I’d be impressed. Very few people fly on a whim.
A brief story, although it‘s not on the same scale as Shankman’s: I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach freshman composition. Students e-mail me all the time. Constantly. Unless there’s some compelling reason to reply, I usually answer their emails in class; if they want or need a longish explanation, I tell them to come to office hours (note: if they can’t make office hours, I also do office hours by appointment, so I’m not doing this to stiff them).
This strategy has a three-fold benefit: it cuts down on the amount of e-mail I receive over the course of the semester because students realize I won’t answer frivolous e-mails twelve hours after they’re sent. If I have follow-up questions, or the student does, those questions are easier to ask face-to-face. Misunderstandings caused by not not being face-to-face are evaded; it’s hard to ascertain context from e-mail. I think everyone has had misunderstandings and hurt feelings caused by dashed off e-mails that aren’t carefully considered. Finally, if students want me to read their papers or other work and show up to office hours, I know they really want me to edit their work, and their desire to get feedback isn’t just a passing fancy as ephemeral as a Facebook status update. The back-and-forth that can come from reading work and immediately responding to it can’t be easily duplicated—especially among non-professionals—over e-mail or other asynchronous communications.
I meant to list three things, I really did. But the reasons kept popping into my head, and I think they’re all valid.
Taken together, these issues point to why I doubt face-to-face meetings will disappear any time soon. If anything, their value might rise as they become less common. When I can, I interview writers, and I only do such interviews face-to-face because I think they’re more valuable. I’ve signaled to the writer that their time is valuable enough for me to come to them, and the conversations that result are, on average, deeper than I think they would be otherwise. There’s something about a person sitting across from you that you don’t get over the phone or Internet.
EDIT: Regarding students and e-mail, this story by Wired’s Chris Anderson also gets it right: “Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as ‘What are your thoughts on this?'” The solution is to reduce e-mail wherever possible by making it equally expensive for emailers as e-mail receivers. Office hours help do this, and showing up at them signals that the student isn’t merely wasting time.
This principle affects other scales, too. Big tech companies still have central offices, usually in very high-rent areas, where they make sure everyone in the company gets together on a regular basis. The willingness of companies to pay for offices indicates they still get a lot of utility from having large numbers of people hanging out in a concentrated area—perhaps because of knowledge-spillover effects, which is Edward Glaeser’s explanation in The Triumph of the City.
If there weren’t such spillover effects, companies would disburse to avoid paying for office space, people would move to rural areas with fast internet and low real estate costs, education wouldn’t consist of a group getting together in a classroom, and the world would look much different than it does. Even in an age of social media, a lot of people want to live in Manhattan—a city not exactly renown for its wonderful weather. Commenters have been predicting the death of distance and the death of place and so on since the dawn of the Internet, if not earlier, and so far they’ve proven wrong. As long as humans remain basically as we are today—in the absence, in other words, of some singularity-type event—I don’t think people are going to want to stop seeing each across a table, or standing next to each other in a room. Social media has not turned our world in Snow Crash, at least not yet. Shankman knows this. Digital technologies complement, rather than substitute for, real world experience. He uses Twitter and flies for face-to-face meetings. That’s the essence of one aspect of modernity: being able to handle multiple registers of communication fluently and realizing that most of them have their place for most people.