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Cities embody political decisions make by their designers. So do online spaces. But urban planners tend to be more transparent about their agendas. Urban planners will declare an intention to create a walkable city with the logic that they believe increased use of public space will improve civic life. And, in the best of cases, planners test to see what works and report failures when they occur – the persistence of private car use in walking cities, for instance. It’s much harder to get the architects behind Facebook or Foursquare articulate the behaviors they’re trying to enable and the political assumptions that underly those decisions.

I think many people who are designing online spaces are trying to increase exposure to diverse range of information and to cultivate serendipity. But I also worry it’s difficult to accomplish, in part because it’s too easy to start from scratch. An urban planner who wants to make changes to a city’s structure is held in check by a matrix of forces: a desire to preserve history, the needs and interests of businesses and residents in existing communities, the costs associated with executing new projects. Progress is slow, and as a result, we’ve got a rich history of cities we can study to see how earlier citizens, architects and planners have solved these problems.

It’s possible to gain inspirations about the future of Lagos by walking the streets of Boston or Rome. For those planning the future of Facebook, it’s hard to study what’s succeeded and failed for MySpace, in part because an exodus of users to Facebook is gradually turning MySpace into a ghost town. It’s harder yet to study earlier communities, like LamdaMOO or Usenet of the early 1980s. I often find myself nostalgic for Tripod, the proto-social network I helped build in the late 1990s. The admirable Internet Archive includes several dozen snapshots of pages on the site from 1997 – 2000, which gives a sense for the changing look and feel, but doesn’t give much insight into the content created by the 18 million users of the site in 1998. Tripod’s more successful competitor, Geocities, disappeared from the web entirely in 2010 – it’s legacy is less than 23,000 pages stored accessible through the Wayback Machine, which threw up its hands at the impossible task of archiving the vast site in mid-2001.

If we learn from real-world cities instead of abandoned digital ones, what lessons might we take?

Worth to take a long break to read the entirety of Desperately Seeking Serendipity at …My Heart’s in Accra.

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