Individual in a public space: learning from weblogs and cities
A slightly edited/linked piece from my proposal for Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium 2005 (and I'm very excited to be invited :) I have been planning to write a proper weblog post around bullet points at the end, but it's not happenning fast, so I just post it as it is and come back to it later.
Although weblogs are perceived as low-threshold tools to publish on-line, empowering individual expression in public, there is growing evidence of social structures evolving around weblogs and their influence on norms and practices of blogging. This evidence ranges from voices of bloggers themselves speaking about the social effects of blogging, to studies on specific weblog communities with distinct cultures (e.g. knitting community or goth community), to mathematical analysis of links between weblogs indicating that community formation in the blogosphere is not a random process, but an indication of shared interests binding bloggers together (Kumar, Novak, Raghaven, & Tomkins, 2003).
Social structures emerging around weblogs are interesting for a number of reasons. Weblogs provide spaces for both individual expression and control, and interactions within social ecosystem; hence providing insights of interplays between practices of networked individuals (Wellman, 2002, .pdf) and social structures where those individuals belong. While some weblog communities mirror existing social structures, others emerge when strangers find each other and connect. Weblogs do not provide a shared space with central topic or activity to be attracted to, nor (often) pre-existing community, but do support emergent social connections.
The nature of those connections is especially interesting, since understanding them can help to design environments to support emergence of social structures without predefining their focus or membership. From this perspective blogging is similar to "life between buildings" in a real city that "an opportunity to be with others in a relaxed and undemanding way". This quote comes from architect Jan Gehl (2001) who discusses how to design public spaces that welcome and support social life.
While reading Gehl's work I couldn't avoid associations with insights about "individual in a public space" from my own research (I study uses and effects of blogging for personal knowledge management). I'd like to draw on parallels between real cities and the world of blogging and propose characteristics of a space that supports emergent social activities:
- comfortable, protected space
- conditions for longer-term activities meaningful for an individual
- "soft-edges", easy switch between inward and outward oriented activities
- opportunities for low-intensity contact: exposure and lurking without a commitment
- "shared space" in between, to move social activity when it grows
These characteristics could be illustrated with examples from other social software applications (del.icio.us, Flickr, etc.) next to weblogs, so I guess they provide a good start for a discussion.