05 Jul

City as Social Network

I recently posted this series of prompts to the iDC discussion list.

Following Google’s acquisition of Feedburner, I want to consider how the threats to privacy that became apparent in that context extend to physical communities (neighborhood, organization, city) that are enabled/bolstered/fortified by social web media.  Many community groups and neighborhood organizations are using digital networking technologies to foster community interaction (http://www.ibrattleboro.com/).  And of course, what is widely known as citizen journalism plays into this as well – placebloggers (http://placebloggers.com) and Community Media organizations tend towards hyperlocal networked content (http://www.cctvcambridge.org/) with an aim towards reinforcing existing geographical connections.  The processes that bind non-geographical communities in networks are similar to those that are binding geographical communities – shared interests, practices, goals, etc.    However, unlike traditional online communities that have a basis in anonymity, digitally annotated physical communities often rely on the full disclosure of identity for their functionality.  For instance, when it comes to neighborhood issues – it is important to know one’s real name and location.

And as city governments are seeking ways to adopt “web 2.0” technologies into their existing “citizen management” projects, the lack of anonymity and the simple traceability of social actions open up new concerns.  Social media tools have the capacity to significantly expand participation in local governance, but they also have the capacity to trace citizen behavior and map social trends.  Cities are interested in this technology for the same reason that corporations are – it offers valuable user data.   Politicians can survey the concerns of their constituency; agencies can identify problems in neighborhoods; and law enforcement…well, there are many scenarios possible.  It can also be turned around: citizens can have greater access to their politicians, and government proceedings can at least have the impression of transparency.

While the conversations on this list have devoted considerable time to corporate surveillance, the question not often asked in this context is what should be made of local surveillance – from the people in one’s neighborhood to city governments?  In the wake of connectivity, discourse and collaboration, there is always documentation, processing and interpretation. From neighborhood chatrooms to local annotated mapping projects to virtual town hall meetings, participation equals surveillance – for better or for worse.

When I consider a digital future in which I want to live – it includes networked access to my neighborhood services, communities, city government and public spaces. However, there is little possibility for that to take place outside of the proliferation of data that would make communities vulnerable to excessive internal and external management. And as citywide wifi and mobile web devices proliferate, the outlets for that recycled data expand.  At the same time, American cities, like corporations, are glomming onto digital media because of its populist resonances.  They are paying attention to online neighborhoods and seeking to aggregate that data into meaningful information.  The ideology of digital media – as evidenced in the phrases “participatory media” and “user-generated content” – is accessibility.  Digital media directly aligns the rhetoric of progress with the rhetoric of populism.  Social web media makes explicit what has only been implied in the recent rhetoric of city governments – that anyone, regardless of social position, can participate in the ordering of city experience and politics.

From cities to towns to neighborhoods, the populist promise of social web media is transforming the nature of public space and civic participation.  I am referring only to the American context, because that’s what I know, but it would be great to engage in comparative dialogue in order to better understand the scope of how these technologies are being officially or unofficially implemented to change perceptions of cities and city life, not to mention public space and community engagement.

I suppose I’ll leave it at that for now.  I look forward to the conversation.

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