Community 2.0 and the Built Environment: An Introduction

Ours is a hyperlinked reality. As technology-enabled connectivity increases, we marvel at how our world seems to be shrinking before our very eyes. For decades now, if not longer, people have spoken of this phenomenon with a mixture of apprehension and bemusement. The apprehension comes from the fact that geography, one of the fundamental building blocks of our reality, is seemingly being relegated to a sort of background status -- an attractive desktop image for life, if you will. The bemusement is likewise rooted in the concrete nature of the physical environment: it never ceases to amaze us each time communicating with people on the other side of the world gets a bit easier because we understand physical distance on a very personal level. Thus the idea that we can communicate instantly with someone in China while sitting in a library in Boise, Idaho, by simply clicking some underlined text is...well...amusing, no matter how tech-savvy we happen to be.

Much as the automobile and its promise of increased physical mobility captured the public's imagination at the turn of the last century and rallied the masses around infrastructural and legislative capacity-building to enhance the automotive experience, the internet has transfixed the global community at the turn of this century by flashing us a future of greatly increased psychological mobility. China, now, is not nearly as far away -- nor as mysterious -- as it once was. Neither is Uraguay, or Romania for that matter. Physical and political boundaries are beginning to fade; the modern world is ours for the taking in a way that is much more immediate than it was twenty years ago.

As a result, it can sometimes seem like humanity is hurtling forward, with new technology (or at least new uses for existing tech) is developed and introduced to the public on an almost daily basis. And just as each technological revolution has had to prove its mettle over time, so has the internet; at first, there was a great deal of fear surrounding the dot com revolution, with people fearing that the world of online communities -- chat rooms, message boards, webcams -- would keep people locked away in their homes, glued to computer screens. Physical communities, we feared, would become a thing of the past. But now, it seems, we have reached the critical point at which people trust the web -- trust it enough to really take control of it.

The "Web 2.0" movement has become a pretty monumental phenomenon in a fairly short period of time. And it comes as no surprise, at least to me, that the interactive nature of collaborative media sites like Flickr, digg, Technorati, Myspace, and the like is not erasing, but re-shaping the way that we build communities. Special interest groups have evolved into social action coalitions. The Blogosphere (a phenomenon of which I am personally quite fond) has passed through its awkward, melodramatic LiveJournal stage and, aided greatly by user-generated media sites like YouTube, become a genuine media powerhouse credited with fundamentally altering political processes around the world. And social networking sites, while still in their own narcissistic adolescence, are slowly starting to show themselves to be, quite possibly, the most promising prospect on the e-horizon through sites like Idealist.org.

So how does this massive shift in the way that we experience life translate to the built environment? "Community 2.0," the communal side of Web 2.0 technology, is growing stronger as you read this, simply by virtue of the fact that you're reading it. Still, it is a young movement, and it is just now starting to show signs of how it will affect the physical landscapes of our cities and towns.

Over the coming week, I'll be using Where to look at what I consider to be the most intriguing and promising aspects of the web-enabled communities of the future. I'll be writing about the way that the internet is changing the way that we use and think about public space; the way that Community 2.0 sites are cutting through crap known as "infotainment" to shed light on some real problems -- and solutions; and the ways in which real estate and the very future of traditional urbanity will be affected by an increasingly mobile public. The series will culminate on Friday with an interview with Phil Tadros, an untraditional Chicago businessman who is applying the people-oriented, localized focus that made his "third place"-style coffee shops into community institutions to the social networking movement in a way that could change how we look at the relationship between electronic communities and our physical neighborhoods.

(Photo from the Internet Mapping Project.)

Series Posts: The New Agora; Communeconomics; Neighborhood Futurism; The Phil Tadros Interview

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