Formerly at VentureBeat, NBC and Gawker/Valleywag, Owen Thomas now serves as founding editor of The Daily Dot, the hometown newspaper of the World Wide Web.
When we talk about community, we talk about places and spaces. But online communities transcend geography.
That tends to mess with our heads. In trying to understand the new, it helps to fall back on the old, using metaphors drawn from familiar sources. Cities have streets, blocks and neighborhoods. Why wouldn’t virtual worlds have the same?
In the ’90s, when we started to colonize cyberspace by the hundreds of thousands (and then by the millions), virtual cities became all the rage. Academics and technologists argued, in all apparent seriousness, that we would click on a 3D picture of a supermarket to go shopping, then wander our avatars down virtual streets to go to our next task.
Yahoo bought GeoCities — a collection of homepages organized by neighborhood. AOL and Tribune launched Digital City. Corporations from Citigroup to SAP moved into virtual terrain.
These city metaphors all failed. Why? Because they proved utterly unnecessary. The older generation, who might have used them as a crutch, found them unwieldy. And digital natives moved directly into new neighborhoods that they built from scratch — forums, message boards, blogs, and ultimately social networks.
And yet we keep falling back on the notion that online communities — entities like Facebook, Twitter, even Mashable Follow — are “places.” They occupy mental space, if not physical space. Look no further than XKCD’s famous map of online communities, which attempts to chart where we live our lives online in whimsical fashion.
Facebook, were it a country, would be the third largest in the world. Twitter, depending on how you count its users, could land in the top 10. Reddit, the freewheeling headline-discussion site, is bigger than Cambodia.
Yet the amount of reportage devoted to these communities is miniscule. Sure, there’s plenty written about Facebook’s booming advertising sales or Twitter’s feuds with its developers. But does any of that matter to the hundreds of millions of people using those sites?
The New “Local”
I find the current vogue for hyperlocal media, which focuses on ever smaller physical spaces, curious — as if the nobility of reporting on the small and uneventful should be rewarded in the marketplace.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of creativity being put into hyperlocal journalism, and it may turn into something interesting. But I think there are far larger, far more interesting, and far more important unexplored territories for journalists to cover.
It’s time to wear out our keyboard covers, not our shoe leather.
I’ve always found it striking that Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s creators, is an urban-design enthusiast. The microblogging service was inspired in part by the short messages sent over traffic-dispatch systems Dorsey once programmed. Indeed, Twitter was once thought of as a tool for telling your friends where you were from moment to moment.
You can still do that, if you like. But Twitter, in the hands of millions of users, has transformed into an utterly new kind of place-announcer. You no longer tell your friends where your body is. Instead, it’s about where your head is at. It’s a real-time map to the geography of the mind.
And that’s where we might find a useful analogy to cities. Instead of the literal metaphors which reproduce the physicality of cities, shouldn’t we look at the deeper characteristics of our urban spaces?
Jane Jacobs, the late author and one of the great thinkers about modern cities, railed against top-down urban planning. But she was a steadfast defender of cities’ mutability.
By occupying the urban landscape, we define it and transform it. The buildings and businesses come and go; the people remain. The real digital cities are made of us.