Do You Really Want to Pick Your Seatmate on Facebook?


Just because technology can take the serendipity out of life doesn't mean that it should.

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The information technology industry is waging a largely successful and to my mind greatly misguided war against the randomness of life. The latest twist, as reported in the New York Times, is a plan by KLM Airlines to let people select seatmates using Facebook profiles.

Relative latecomers to the social media party, airlines are quickly becoming sophisticated users of online networks, not only as marketing tools, but as a low-cost way to learn more about their customers and their preferences. With Facebook alone claiming nearly 500 million daily active users -- more than 60 times the eight million people who fly each day -- KLM and others are betting that many of them would be willing to share their profiles in exchange, say, for a chance to meet someone with a common interest or who might be going to the same event.

The idea is catching on. Last year, Malaysia Airlines introduced MHBuddy, an application that allows users who book and check in via the carrier's Facebook page to see whether any of their "friends" will be on the same flight or in their destination city at the same time. The platform, which claims 3,000 monthly active users, also enables existing friends to select seats together.

One glitch in KLM's plan, at least, is already apparent. It isn't matching people who mutually want to sit next to each other. It's unilateral, and it puts the selectee in the potentially awkward position of rejecting the selector:

While it is not possible to "reject" a person who has chosen to sit with you, you can select another seat as long as two days before the flight. Those feeling awkward about moving can delete their data and select new seats using the standard -- anonymous -- online platform.

The Times reporter notes some objections but I think they can be manifold. What if the selection is made within the limit, like one of those eBay sniping bids? By somebody with timeshares to unload, or worse? It's likely that the people you'd most like to sit next to spend a lot of their time fending off people who want to get close to them, and thus are least likely to sign up in the first place. And there's the additional downside that switching your seat on the wrong person will make a stranger an instant unfriend.

These plans are just another example of counterserendipity, trying to rationalize often irritating but potentially productive experiences by algorithms. (Emma Barrett at the Telegraph has an excellent column on the software's downside.)

Fortunately, the airlines have been thoughtful enough to provide their own alternative. It's called the middle seat. It doubles your chances of having an interesting neighbor, yet it's wonderfully anonymous and private. It's also a happy compromise, with a fair view out the window but only one seat away from the aisle.

Let's keep this strategy a secret. If the airlines find out, they'll start charging an extra fee.

Image: FlickrCC/MattHurst
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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