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The Importance of Talking to Strangers

Airplanes are about to get a lot less fun.

KLM is currently testing a program called Meet and Seat that lets you see the Facebook or LinkedIn profile of your fellow passengers before choosing a seat. The idea is that you’ll scan the crowd for like-minded souls and choose your conversation partner accordingly. It’s a good deal if you don’t want to be stuck with a talkative “management specialist”—but we can’t help thinking something’s been lost. Specifically, that rare, unexpected bond between strangers...

The truth is, there aren’t many strangers left. They’re practically endangered, whittled down by Facebook and the omnipresent urge to network. That’s what the social graph is all about: a virtual web connecting everyone to everyone else, however many links that happens to take. It’s a question of six or seven or 12 degrees of separation. “Stranger” isn’t in the vocabulary. Even on an airplane, once the most reliable place to run into one.

It’s a disheartening thought, at least to us. Wherever we seek out society—bars, Masonic temples, what have you—part of what we’re seeking out is the thrill of the unknown. Anyone in the world could be sitting across the bar. Novelists, Olympians, arms dealers—it’s all up for grabs. You simply never know. The problem with KLM’s new system is that, by the time you step onto the plane, you do know. You’ve mined the data, screened your options and snuffed out any surprises. It’s like arriving at a party only to find you’ve already met everyone.

In our book, that means it’s time to find the next party.