"The Long Tail may prove to be a problem for another reason, what Robert Putnam calls 'cyberbalkanization'...Given the vast number of possible clusters one can associate with, it becomes possible, ultimately, to find a comfortable niche with people just like oneself, among other individuals whose views merely reinforce one' own. If the Internet is hardly responsible for this condition, it can exacerbate it while giving us the illusion that we are connecting with others. Through portals like news.google.com or my.yahoo.com and, even more so, through RSS readers, Nicholas Negroponte' vision of a personalized newspaper freshly constructed for us every morning, tailored to our interests, is a reality. Even big media, under pressures of post-Fordist flexible consumption, has itself fragmented into a myriad of channels. But this desire for relevance is dangerous. It is entirely possible to essentially fabricate the outside world, reducing it to a projection of oneself. Rather than fostering deliberation, blogs can simply reinforce opinions between like-minded individuals. Conservatives talk to conservatives while liberals talk to liberals. Lacking a common platform for deliberation, they reinforce existing differences. Moreover, new divisions occur. Humans are able to maintain only a finite number of relationships and as we connect with others at a distance who are more like us, we are likely to disconnect with others in our community who less like us. Filters too can lead to grotesque misrepresentations of the world, as in the case of happynews.com ('Real News. Compelling Stories. Always Positive.')."
This passage, from the conclusion of Kazys Varnelis' forthcoming book The Rise of Network Culture, absolutely sets my brain on fire. The (theoretical) process examined here -- this "Cyberbalkanization," as it were -- strikes me as having the potential to cause one of the most radical and fundamental shifts in urban demographics over the coming few decades. Human beings have always formed local communities by seeking out familiar neighbors. In America, the ethnic clustering caused by massive waves of immigration in the eighteen and nineteen-hundreds carved the social geograpies of major cities into the familiar, nationality-coded neighborhoods that now serve, more often than not, as tourist attractions in a country that is increasingly obsessed with the "other." We have a whole slew of Chinatowns and Little Italys scattered across the nation that allow us safe passage to foreign countries without ever requiring us to bother getting a passport. Or actually leave home.
It seems very possible to me, then, that as Community 2.0 technology creates increasingly mobile and focused networks of people, it has the possibility to shift the emphasis from ethnic demographics to lifestyle-based demographics. Think "Gayborhoods" multiplied on a massive, society-wide scale. Imagine Lower Manhattan, the proverbial "melting pot" of ethnic neighborhoods, reorganized into new, hyperbranded communities: the Bowery as a center of the Dungeons & Dragons community; Little Italy as a robust enclave of Birding-types; the streets of Chinatown filled with immigrant Map Enthusiasts digging through bins of fake antique sextants and folders of illegal knockoff designer topographic charts to decorate the exposed-brick walls of their loft apartments.
If the internet and C2.0 tech turn out to be the great economic equalizers that some hope they are, our city neighborhoods could become intensely focused, dismantling the current, socioeconomically segregated landscape in favor of these types of interest-based communities. Marketing would become less about influencing decisions and more about directing entire social networks (which is already happening, in some ways.) As culture was sliced and diced into ever-smaller, more specified pieces, block numbers would become the new brands. To be from the 300 block of Broome Street in Manhattan would make one instantly identifiable as a Level Three Dungeon Master of Fire...or something. (My apologies to D&D enthusiasts.)
Or think about the potential nightmare of the post-net neutrality real estate market in a world of internet-organized neighborhoods, with users living in server- or website-centered communities. New Yorkers might choose to live in TriBeYa (Triangle Belonging to Yahoo!); San Franciscans could buy trendy lofts in The ComCastro; across the pond, Londoners would flock to the clean-scrubbed, hypernetworked streets of Mayfairspace. Just imagine the advertising fustercluck...no, on second thought, don't.
All of this fantastical speculation leads me to this question: if the internet has the power to reshape urban demographics, what power, if any, does urban design have to combat this kind of ideological, hypercommercialized isolation? I should probably have at least some semblance of an answer to close out this post. But I don't.
Series Posts: Introduction; The New Agora; Communeconomics; The Phil Tadros Interview
Conclusion to Networked Publics (Varnelis.net)