The way people use ICTs in their daily lives is infinitely varied. These variations are associated with socio-economic background, geographical location, cultural capital and a number of other factors. While the scholarly debate has been rich in regards to understanding how individuals and communities integrate new ICTs into their everyday lives, the debate has largely steered away from questions of design. In other words, how people accommodate existing and popular SNSs like Twitter and Facebook is limited by the design of a digital space that is meant to accomplish very particular things. Facebook, Twitter, even Foursquare, are not meant to enhance local community life - so why should we expect them to succeed at this? The excellent new study by Hampton, et. al entitled “How New Media Affords Network Diversity” provides fascinating evidence of how digital networks actually create more diverse geographically-based social networks, except in the case of social softare. The heavy use of these systems lead to less diversity in local networks. In other words, people who use Facebook a lot are less likely to talk to their neighbors.
This is very useful. But it is not damning. If digital networks are spaces of social architecture, we cannot assume that all networks inevitably lead to the same results. We would never treat physical architecture this way. We would never conclude that buildings lead to less social interaction. We might say that mini-malls result in certain social behavior, or skyscrapers, but never buildings in general. Accordingly, we need to address the design of digital networks in any assessment of how the digital affects local community. And, we should continue to look at experimental practices that extend the possibilities of local, networked life. Foursquare does not equal location-based social networking. It certainly has brought these services into the public awareness, but it in no way should frame the debate about them.
In a design-based approach to communities and technologies, the evaluation of networked spaces is always connected to the intricacies of that space’s design. How can location-based social networks make people aware of local geography, local resources, and communities? What design elements lead to feelings of co-presence and an increase in social capital? Let’s move beyond the debate about the efficacy of buildings and towards a conversation about the design of social architecture and the affordances of designed digital networks for local life.