Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deep Thinking About Gathering Places

I've been messing around with an idea for a long time and it looks like the messing will continue. Thank you, dear readers, for indulging me in this. If I don't get this out of my head and on (virtual) paper, I might have to do something crazy....

Like blow my diet with a candy bar in the middle of the day or (heaven forbid) go shoe shopping.

*deep breath* OK. Here goes.

As information designers, we should be thinking about our information spaces in the same way that urban planners look at physical spaces. As web sites become less about content and more about human interaction, the parallels between the two disciplines become more pronounced.

Human communities tend to follow similar interaction patterns whether they are online or face to face. Different norms pop up, but the basic interactions are the same: we like to connect, we need to sell or shop, we learn.

I look around the small suburban community I live in and notice where people congregate. It's actually not an easy town to congregate in. It was built right after World War II and epitomizes the culture of the car. The arteries of the town are dangerous, heavily trafficked roads. The shopping is made of a seemingly endless series of strip malls, all with aprons of parking lots spread out before them.

You have to drive everywhere... and that's less about physical distance and more about avoiding becoming roadkill. That's what first got me thinking about physical and online environments. Moving fast to avoid becoming roadkill... well, that kind of resonated with how I look at the Web.

So I went looking for some information on urban planning.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote a book called Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was a big deal at the time, going against a lot of tightly held assumptions. Jacobs compared cities to living things that change over time as they interact with their environment. If the city is the organism, then the sidewalks, parks, streets and neighborhoods are the various systems, each with a different function but tightly and seamlessly integrated. By viewing cities in this way, planners can better understand their structure and make more efficacious recommendations.

Diverse shared areas are connected and then work together as a whole, creating efficient community. Makes total sense. Let's go another step.

So what would be a digital example of each? I'd argue that search engines are the streets -- maybe more like bridges over the rich, swampy, unorganized muck that is the World Wide Web. I know from my own research, as well as others', that most people start with a search engine (or bookmarks, RSS readers, or a single "portal" site). They start with a road.

That's sort of where I lose the parallels, though. We've got roads through the muck, but they are all individualized. In the physical world we share those roads and, because of that, interact with each other. The web isn't organized into neighborhoods that have some kind of underlying commonality about them that we must, as humans, acknowledge as unchangable... something like physical location. On the Web, an individual has to build his or her own digital neighborhoods (groups of web sites) based on a personal set of commonalities like taste, preferences, and beliefs. Some of those things are shared with others, but never in exactly the same way.

Basically, the roads are built for a single person, by a single person, and pretty much disappear without a trace as soon as the person travels it.

In a physical community, people are forced to share. We have to share physical spaces. We have to share services. Within that sharing comes a sense of community.

On the Web, we aren't forced to share anything.

I'm starting to think that I got this information spaces as physical spaces all wrong -- particularly around online community. While we want to come together on the Web, it is a completely different environment. Any attempt to mimic physical place on the Web is artificial. The same base rules simply don't apply.

It's like living on Mars... scratch that. It's more alien than that. It's like living on Jupiter and swirling around on the poisonous winds with 40 million other people in space suits... only able to communicate through radios and the rare, occasional wave.

How would you build a sense of community on Jupiter?