Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: The New Agora
One of the most important places in the ancient Greek city (or polis, I suppose) was the Agora. The Agora was a physical nexus, the point at which many major roads often converged. This very public space was large and open, sometimes colonnaded, and designed to accommodate large numbers of people. It served first as a gathering place for public functions, then as a marketplace, but most importantly became the center of daily social life thanks to easy access and high traffic. Often surrounded by important civic structures, it was a beating heart, the place from which life flowed to and from, helping the physical environment of the city to transcend its bricks-and-mortar status.
In today's society, the internet has become the new Agora. What began as a media outlet and became a marketplace has now evolved, thanks to increasingly easy access and Community 2.0 tech, into the casual, electronic public square for contemporary society. As C2.0 sites focus on smaller and smaller areas, shifting now from cities to individual neighborhoods, the technology that created the global community is now becoming, ironically, increasingly local.
The most highly publicized sign of this phenomenon -- the shrinking of the internet, in a way -- has been the development of the blogosphere into a neighborhood-based media institution. Neighborhood blogs monitor local goings-on, serving as a touchstone for current residents and a deep well of information for prospectives. Websites like Outside.in (which recently earned a great deal of attention for its "10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods" article, breaks cities down by ZIP code) and Placeblogger are now beginning to compile bloggers' efforts, creating hyperlocal blogging communities that allow neighbors to see exactly what the buzz is around the block.
It has been a long time since most cities, especially Stateside, have seen anything remotely like the Agora. While parks and squares remain social gathering places, there aren't very many great centers of public discourse anymore. While places like Times Square in New York and Ginza in Tokyo maintain all of the characteristics of the Agora -- plenty of media, retail, and traffic -- they lack the social aspect. Discourse has become associated almost exclusively with the internet. Information is readily available just about everywhere one goes in a city, but the discussion of this information, and the cultural process of dissecting and digesting this information, has become increasingly anonymous, as opinions most often belong to avatars and screennames, not actual people.
As a result, purpose-built public spaces -- the squares and "plazas" that are Agora-like in their conception -- have grown more and more anonymous themselves. Far from encouraging any sort of social interaction (much less the kind of chance meetings Jane Jacobs so famously explained to be the root of urban vitality) new public spaces range from desolate to kitschy. As C2.0 sites gain more and more cultural weight, places like web cafes and other ably-wired "third places" are becoming community hubs, taking the intangible Agora of the internet and giving it a physical anchor. And as our cities go wireless, we will likely see these types of establishments become neighborhood fixtures. Put simply, The City will no longer be required, as it was in Greek times, to provide a great public meeting place; instead, this will become wholly the responsibility of The Neighborhood.
Our shrinking world is about to get even smaller.
(Photo from Flickr user stephenwoo.)
Series Posts: Introduction; Communeconomics; Neighborhood Futurism; The Phil Tadros Interview