[iDC] city as social network

Eric Gordon eric_gordon at emerson.edu
Thu Jul 5 15:29:26 EDT 2007

Hi everyone.  My name is Eric Gordon – I’ve been watching this list  
for some time but I’ve made only a few contributions.  Perhaps as a  
means of forcing my involvement, Trebor has asked me to moderate a  
discussion on the topic that has lately occupied most of my time –  
place-based social media and its implications for privacy, public  
space, and democratic engagement.  Following the recent conversation  
about Feedburner, I want to consider how that discussion might 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  

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 implemented in official or unofficial  
capacities 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  


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