In which I respond to a huge post about social software with a huge post about social software…

11/13/2002

Must-read interaction/community techblog of the moment is City of Sound, a site that I found initially via the Slipknot be-hoodied Matt Jones. Our two otherwise independent vectors of interest have recently collided quite heavily around MP3s, list-making and social software, with – I think – some quite interesting results. Our latest interaction is around the issue of social capital – which is a current hot topic of debate around government and online community circles, and which I’ve been working on (in a kind of weirdly indirect way) on UpMyStreet Conversations. Dan (the author) has taken me to task quite reasonably about this statement that I made recently:

“(P)eople in cities are talking less and less to one another. In fact most of us barely communicate with our neighbours at all. And the vast majority of the social spaces that we all used to share have been dismantled or evaporated. So how can we expect communities self-organise? And how are they expected to join together politically? How can they protest about problems where they live?”

In Dan’s response he suggests that technology has already started to rebuild these communities of geography and that I was being over-dramatic to talk about all communication in cities being in a process of freefall decline. He is of course, completely right – and I have gone into astonishingly dreary detail over on his site in response. In fact when I clicked ‘submit’ it occurred to me that I’d written so much that it might have made a better post on plasticbag.org – so I’m going to append it below in full. Forgive any typos or bad grammar – I’ll have a second look at it tomorrow and fix the most obviously horrific mistakes…

Actually you’re completely right, but I think if we look at these things in terms of their recent history alone we might lose some perspective. I’m going to go for a bit of a trip on a hypothesis-rocket now, so please bear with me if it seems based on completely anecdotal and speculative evidence – I’m about to read Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” about the decline in social capital in the States. Maybe that that point I’ll be in a better position to talk about this stuff…

At this thing on social capital and social software that I went to the other day with Matt Webb from Interconnected.org people were talking about this decline in interactions in cities and urban spaces. People were debating the reasons for it, the connections between take up of “virtual online communities” and “interest communities” and the like – and some were in fact debating the existence of such a decline.

I’m going to contend that there has been such a decline in interactions and the extent to which we know our neighbours, but I’m going to argue that this isn’t an effect of technology like the internet – it’s an effect instead of technologies like television, technologies like the car and having a more mobile work-force. I’m also going to argue that it has something to do with population density and the impermanence of habitation for some people. So essentially I’m pushing this decline back over the last hundred years or so, rather than the last ten years. And I wouldn’t want to argue that everyone has experienced it either – I grew up in a village in the countryside where everyone knows everyone. So it’s not universal. But I think certainly in urban spaces it is a very real fact…

From what you’ve written above, it looks like my statements have been interpreted to mean that I think such a social decline is an inevitable effect of the technologies we’ve been using and that UpMyStreet Conversations represents (finally) a solution. But actually that’s miles from what I think. What I would argue is that rather than exacerbating the social decline, the internet (unlike many one-to-one communication technology) has finally started to reform the social fabric – to bring back communication between people on the basis of interest groups (and what could be a greater interest group than people interested in the area in which they live – now available to people without the social danger and anxiety of actual and immediate physical interaction). In fact I think I’d argue that the take up of this technology – of the community stuff of the internet – reflects a gap in our lives – a need for it – that previous decay in social capital has created.

In a nutshell… Social interactions based on neighbourhood have been deteriorating for decades – particularly in highly transitory urban areas. New technologies have connected us with huger, but more distributed interest communities, and have recently begun to facilitate and enhance those limited local geographical interactions that we still have left. And there is now a tremendous human need left unfulfilled that we can now meet. And UMS Conversations is one way for us to help do that… I think..