Lisbon: queen bee of Portugal. Credit: Lucag at Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

Do big cities make you more social?

Who you gonna call?

Good news for the city mice out there – new research is claiming that people who live in bigger cities have larger social networks.

The study, carried out by researchers from MIT and the Santa Fe Institute, examined anonymised call information from the UK and Portugal to find out how many phone contacts (that is, “people you actually call”) phone owners had, and how often they communicated.

When they analysed the results, researchers found a “superlinear” link between city size and communication activity: as city size increases, residents’ total phone activity, and the total number of contacts they have between them, increase even more. 

The diagram below compares the phone contacts of an average inhabitant of Lisbon (population 564,657) to that of a resident of Lixa (population 4,233). The Lisbonian has twice as many contacts.

Credit: Kael Greco, MIT Senseable City Lab

Oddly enough, the researchers also found that, despite a higher number of contacts in larger cities, the likelihood of your friends or acquaintances knowing one another remains pretty much the same. (That’s what “average clustering coefficient” at the bottom of the image refers to. Catchy.) Essentially, you’ll find similar types of networks in all sizes of city; it’s just that people in bigger cities tend to have larger ones. The researchers call this the “village” effect. Carlo Ratti, one of the paper’s authors, says:

It seems that even in large cities we tend to build a tightly-knit community, or ‘village,’ around ourselves...In a real village, connections might be defined by proximity, while in a large city we can elect a community based on affinity, interest, or sexual preference.”

This fits in nicely with the theory of “Urban Tribes”, put forward by US journalist Ethan Watters: in large cities where we lack family or local community, we create our own.

There is, however, a catch. Or rather, a network of catches.

For a start, the researchers analysed 7.6 billion calls from landlines (remember those?) in the UK, from a single month in 2005. While this included calls from landlines to mobiles, they didn’t include any mobile-only data, despite the fact that in 2005, around 85 per cent of UK households were using mobile phones.

In Portugal, they analysed mobile phone calls from a single phone network for fifteen months from 2006 to 2007. Yet in each city, the largest group (always at least 10 per cent of the phone users) had only one contact. Mobile users in Sabugal, the country’s least populated city, had a median of only 4 contacts, while in Lisbon, the largest, it was 11. Over fifteen months, that’s not that many – either people are a lot lonelier than we realised, or mobile usage doesn’t offer a comprehensive guide to someone’s social life.

But the research is at least indicative of an upwards trend in phone interactions as cities get larger. According to the study’s website, the researchers hope that their findings could “elucidate the role of cities as accelerators of human integrations”, and so shed light on the spread of other things in cities – crime or disease, for example.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon – in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496