Social Media Makes My City Smaller

Besides cities and urbanism, my other main passion is social media: From blogging for a variety of sites, to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and LinkedIn the list goes on and on.

An urbanist using an iPhoneWhile Twitter is often criticized for being narcissistic, this point of view shows a misunderstanding of what the application is really about. Indeed, if that is how you look at Twitter (or any other social media platform), then it’s no wonder you don’t like it.

I use tools like Twitter and Whrrl to reach out beyond the people I would otherwise know and go to places and events I wouldn’t otherwise attend. This helps me get to know my city better. As my social network grows, my city shrinks.

Creating Community

I went from “being lost in the urban desert” three years ago, to “finding my way through the urban desert” last year, to “creating community in the urban desert” right now. This evolution of my tagline shows how social media has provided a roadmap to navigate through the vast spawltopia that is Phoenix. Through social media, I have met others that share similar interests and similar values and built an urban ‘tribe’. I have discovered new and cool places, I have even begun repositioning my career. Would this have been possible without social media? Perhaps; but not as quickly and definitely not as deeply.

Connection Devices

The feeling of being connected, more so than the feeling of being mobile, provides the necessary context from which to be productive, both in terms of work and social life. Eric Gordon

Part of the misunderstanding fog social media is how we define in it. First too many people put the emphasis on the MEDIA part of it, instead of the SOCIAL. To me, Social Media is all about the people, the tech are just tools to facilities the social. Indeed I view tools like Facebook and Twitter the next step in a long chain of social tools From town criers to neighborhood bulletin boards to telephone trees, the current crop of social media applications stand on their shoulders.

Another definition problem is the use of the term ‘mobile devices.’ While mobility is indeed a huge part of their functionality, their true power comes from their power to connect not only with each other, but with our surroundings. As Ezra Goldman points out:

people are likely as mobile today as they ever were. What’s different is that we’re more accessible and connected when we do move around.

Engagement Devices

Social media provides us with the ability, not simply to ‘check in,’ but to pay attention to not only where we are, but what (and who) is around us. By using location-based apps, we are pausing, if only for a moment, to engage with our social network AND physical surroundings. We are connecting where we are with what we are doing with who we know. Our experience becomes richer because of such engagement.

Sure, like any tool, connection devices are misused. They can draw us away from the immediacy of our surroundings, alienating ourselves from those who are with us physically. But their power to connect us and draw attention to things that matter around us outweighs this side effect. And instead of critiquing the devices and their users our time would be better spent developing ways to enhance our understanding of our surroundings while at the same time encouraging un-mediated interpersonal interaction.

The modern American city has never been bereft of these complications — from the hand-held camera at the end of the nineteenth century to the mobile phone at the end of the twentieth, the city has always been a mediated construct. The city enters into the cultural imaginary as a hodgepodge of disconnected signifiers, often organized by the technologies that produce them. Eric Gordon, Urban Spectator

Conclusion

Far from isolating me somewhere in cyber-space, social media has allowed me to engage my city—and my friends—at a far deeper level than was possible before.  It has made my city smaller, more interesting and more friendly and my life would be poorer without it.

NOTES

  1. The title of this post was borrowed from a post written by Vancouver journalist and blogger Lisa Johnson. I tried to come up with my own, but couldn’t top it. I hope Lisa doesn’t mind!
  2. For more on this concept, please refer to this excellent blog by Eric Gordon.
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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.