Last year, a relative of mine decided to come to Beijing. She had just returned after years of studying overseas, and wanted to work in Beijing instead of returning to her hometown. After a very trying interview process, she landed a great job in Dongdan, right in the heart of the city. After landing the gig, she moved on to her second most important task: finding a house.

After much deliberation and research, she decided to find a house in Shuangjing. She figured a large ex-pat community was important to her, since it meant many likeminded people in the neighborhood and a lot of options for dining and entertainment. Besides, Shuangjing has a stop for metro line 10, which means it is very close to Guomao, Sanlitun, Liamaqiao, as well as other hot destinations. Because of the metro, Shuangjing is also good for her daily commutes; she figured it’s only four stops from her house to her workplace, and this would take her 15 minutes tops.

So you can imagine her shock the first day she went to work. Line 10 was crowded, though not something she can’t bear. But the transfer from line 10 to line 1 was so crowded that she seriously considered move somewhere else and give up the deposit. In the end, it took her 45 minutes to get to work, and her definition of “crowded” had been redefined. In one trip, she had learned more about the distance between Shuangjing and Dongdan than all of the research she had done previously online.

My relative’s experience is a perfect example of why the social networks are so valuable. By looking at the distance and the transportation routes, my relative would’ve never guessed it would take so long for her to go from Shuangjing to Dongdan.

But let’s assume she was astute enough to search both Baidu Maps (which shows her the fastest route theoretically) and Sina Weibo (presumably there will be people complaining about the hassle and the pain of going from Shuangjing to Dongdan and offer better suggestions). What more could you do for her?

The best option for her, of course, was to have someone who lived in Beijing and know their way around. They would surely provide better advice as to where to rent a residence that could better meet her demands. They would’ve told her that Baidu Maps, though a useful tool, often provides incorrect suggestions (for example, telling you to switch metro lines in order to take the shortest route, even when switch lines takes way longer because you have to walk from line to line and wait around for the train to arrive).

They would also offer more nuanced suggestion than what Weibo does. Their answer is more detailed (for example, they can tell her exactly which station is the most crowded) and more tailored (as she can take into account all of her personal needs).

Maybe in the future, a computer could replicate, maybe even exceed, what a person’s best friend could do. But right now, technology simply is not a cure for all, especially in solving problems that are complex.

Yang is currently the brand and media director at Elitime Media & Consulting. He has published and translated seven books, and several of his works have been translated and published in areas such...

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