Location matters. Black Swan-author Nassim Nicholas Taleb finds "living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters – you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity." That's particularly true for romance. People move to big cities not to advance their careers, party, escape, disappear, be a star, and so on. The chick-flick fan that I am, I remember very well that candid line from Sex and the City (the movie): "I came to New York City to fall in love." Exactly. "Anyone who's predicting the decline of big cities has already met their spouse," writes Clay Shirky.
One of the most effective places for random but potentially life-defining encounters is the public intimacy of the subway. The underground is not only an object of affection but also its catalyst. As reported by The Australian, a recent study commissioned by the Paris Transport Authority ("L'Amour Mobile" – why studies in French sound better than poems in English is another topic) found out that the majority of Internet messages posted by Parisians seeking a stranger whose path they had crossed stemmed from a look, a smile, or a conversation on the Métro. More than 80 percent of the messages were from underground passengers, typically between 18 and 25 years old, and divided almost equally between men and women. They were often reading books or listening to iPods – activities that apparently unite passengers more than they isolate them.
"The Metro is without doubt the foremost producer of urban tales about falling in love," Frank Beau, the author of the study, commented. Mr. Beau further suggested that the physical proximity of passengers fueled romantic tension. The slightest contact – a glance, a word, a jacket brushing against your shoulder – becomes an "extraordinary experience," he said, adding that the seats by the doors were the best spot for romantic exchanges. Encounters in museums, parks, cafes or on the street were far less likely to produce passion.
A second study commissioned by public transportation executives in Paris showed that 12 percent of Parisians had begun a lasting relationship, as friends or lovers, with someone they met for the first time on the underground.
Despite Paris being the "city of love," one can probably find the same pattern on other underground systems: London, Berlin, Moscow, or Shanghai. The "Missed Connections" section on Craigslist is a popular compilation of frustrated amour in US metropolitan areas. In New York, the story of a romantic subway rider going many extra miles to find his subway acquaintance was a hit on local media outlets.
As The Australian suggests, companies should think about developing mobile web services to enable passengers to reconnect with a random encounter. Ultimately, of course, all this would be much easier if everyone just carried an ID tag (on an opt-in basis) – a Clear Card for Metromantics.
Ps. Frank Beau will discuss the findings of the studies at the LIFT conference in Geneva.