More on "Are Online Social Networks the new Cities?"

I promised a few of my own thoughts after liveblogging the “Are online social networks the new cities” at yesterday’s Innovation Edge conference. I’ve not had much time to reflect on the session, which is a shame as it’s a question that touches on a lot of areas of interest for me, but being so broad it can be hard to impose an appropriate structure on the conversation, particularly with such a large audience.

I very nearly gave up making notes during the session as it seemed to wander quite some way from the intended topic, spending a lot more time on the implications of social networking sites for education and family life. Certainly family life and the education system are key components of city life and looking at them is part of answering the question, but too much time was spent on that topic when none of the panel were really in a position to discuss it in any great detail.

Michael Birch’s comments that they had thought a lot about urban development when planning Bebo were probably the point that most piqued my interest. His reference to the problems of fabricating a community in the way that Milton Keynes, Welwyn Garden City and other similar towns were created is an important point for anyone seeking to design online social spaces. It’s a shame he wasn’t encouraged to develop that further. This is one area where our understanding of the web is very clearly still in its very early stages; we’re only just beginning to see platforms that allow people to mould their surroundings in a way analagous any good physical city allows and developing that way is likely to push at many of our preconceptions.

As with so many conversations about the web—whether we’re talking about the differences between the so-called Webs 1, 2 and 3, the relationship between blogs and traditional journalism, or social networks and other forms of interaction—I got a sense that there were false dichotomies. As the panel thankfully noted, teenage behaviour may look different online but in most respects what we’re seeing is an extension of the teenage norms we’ve seen over several generations. And similarly the most fertile conversations about cities and social networks seem to hinge on things like our local ning group, the Facebook Neighbourhoods app, outside.in, and tools like some of those MySociety is building. The web doesn’t simply replace spaces, but whether limited or pervasive it can augment them, as Andrew Blum discussed in a piece from October.

Maybe a future session of this sort could work better if it were focussed more tightly on innovation in the overlap between urban spaces and pervasive internet.

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