Social networks and urban development

Science principles drive the synergy of complex systems. Consider technology, cities and society. Cities are the sites of technosocial inscription, making them great test environments for emerging technologies. In other words, we can use urban spaces to test new engagement and data collection methods to ensure sustainable and inclusive development going forward.

My paper, Local Communities and Socialized Citizens: The Role of Social Networks in Sustainable Urban Development, shows how increased civic engagement can strengthen cities. I’m grateful to Kimse Yok Mu for the opportunity to present at the International Conference on Social Media for Good in Istanbul. Special thanks to David Orban and Chris Worman for their insight, and to Markets For Good for giving added visibility to this important topic. Free download here.


Out of respect for my Lebanese friends, I’ve abandoned Facebook’s photo filter designed to show solidarity with Paris. I support efforts in digital spaces that serve to strengthen solidarity between nations in times of crisis. But when these efforts blatantly disregard the suffering of others, in favor of reiterating a longstanding narrative that separates citizens in the West from those in the Middle East, I don’t feel right participating.

What’s happened in Paris is horrific, and my heart breaks for its loss. But this week terrorist attacks were not confined to French borders. Keeping a balanced view of human loss everywhere will mitigate the desensitization spurred by western-centric media designed to erroneously illustrate that somehow French lives (120+ killed by terrorists in 2015) matter more than Lebanese lives (40+ killed by terrorists in 2015) or Kenyan lives (147 killed by terrorists in 2015). I don’t recall seeing filters for the other two.

This double standard, along with our instinctive desire to participate in it, reflects an elitist sensibility that’s enabled a myriad of atrocities the world over. This is my opinion and it’s not my place to judge your intentions, but I refuse to disregard my Lebanese brothers and sisters during their time of sorrow. All flags at half mast.

Your kids aren’t digital zombies

Inevitably, the year before you were born looks like Eden, and the year after your children were born looks like Mad Max. —Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik’s article for The Wall Street Journal explains how teens’ lives in digital parallels their time in the physical. Not so strange, considering “the cultural ratchet”, the tech phenomenon where kids assimilate more rapidly than adults.

I’m sure you’ve seen the meme with the train full of vintage hats stuck in their newspapers, meant to disprove digital critics who warn against the antisocial plague looming just two or three viral ad campaigns ahead of the next iPhone s. I once read an entire newspaper as a kid, front to finish, skimming sections (like the classifieds) which I circled back to.

Funny thing is you can put a newspaper down, you can finish it, it’s produced and consumed as a package, with a shelf life, a beginning, an end.

The internet and apps — the sprites that give mobile its mojo — aren’t so easily consumed, or left alone. I wonder how long it would take to skim the internet from my phone. Maybe longer than it would a newspaper. Maybe not. At some point I’d drop it in favor of a real conversation. The physical is less exhausting. I’m not sure “antisocial” is the problem.

As target demographics go we have no qualms about eating our young. The marketing monster is a glutton and the “me” generation is left starving for attention, validation, acceptance. In fact, caring about what others think now hampers our ability to critically engage in civic discourse, online and off. (Our teens will assimilate to that, too.)

If “the cultural ratchet” is true for digital tech and apps, it’s also true for civic engagement. Smart kids make smart communities. So let’s invest in them young.

Image: Alamy via Guardian

Replicas of real-life spaces

What humans do is create spaces. We create spaces and we have people come together in those spaces, and then we communicate and socialize within those spaces. —Ebbe Altberg

Remember Second Life? Earlier this year Business Insider reported its membership as “stable” at nearly one million active users per month. With little media coverage in the last 10 years the numbers haven’t changed much, but virtual reality is about to make the Second Life experience more relevant than ever.

Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Second Life developer Linden Lab, says “the world is waking up again”, referring to immersive virtual reality, the hotbed of emerging tech that’s set to literally transform the virtual workplace:

Linden Lab is marshaling its expertise and experience in building immersive, functional virtual worlds to make a proper successor to the Second Life platform and take advantage of the bold new world of immersive VR. Specifically, Linden sees a huge opportunity in making it easier for people to build and share cool virtual reality experiences. It has workplace applications too: San Francisco-based nonprofit TechSoup hosts its [weekly] all-hands meetings in Second Life, where as many as 50 people meet in the virtual world — tools like Skype are too unwieldy for them at that scale, Altberg says, and it provides a way for them to be in the same room even when they’re not.

Now Altberg is planning the next phase of SL, codenamed Project Sansar. And High Fidelity (a project of SL’s original inventor Philip Rosedale) will offer a similar “upgraded” experience where people can travel an interconnected landscape filled with “convincingly real-world interactions in VR”. With Oculus set to storm the world with a new brand of virtual innovation, the way we meet for work and play may look a lot like the Nonprofit Commons, where geography and gender take a back seat to the actual act of communicating.

This morning at 9:30am Eastern I teleported to Second Life Island for the first time. There I met with interactive designer Joyce Bettencourt, aka Rhiannon Chatnoir, to lay the framework for a discussion on the future of the TechSoup Global community forum, and how increased interactivity might help create a conceptual wormhole between these two worlds.

TechSoup Global’s Nonprofit Commons first convened on Second Life eight years ago. Rhiannon, who co-leads the meetings, helped me acclimate to my new body and learn the controls — the “life support” needed to comfortably navigate this new Second Life.

Despite being new to the “physical” world of the metaverse, I’ve done some hard research on MUDs and MOOs and their social implications, thanks to pioneer cyber-academics like Sherry Turkle and Annette Markham. When I meet with the Nonprofit Commons next month I’ll experience Second Life for myself — a new territory that excites the bejesus out of me, if only for the fact that I might finally catch up to my tween-aged nephew, whose vast knowledge of Minecraft and similar virtual spaces puts me to shame.

As time and trend ebb and flow, collaborating across sectors and borders will benefit from remote interactions in virtual spaces fashioned after real ones. At that moment, we’ll be creating and collaborating on the frontier of future-present worlds, where a new set of social expectations and etiquette will affect the way we interact in the corporeal here-and-now.



If in any quest for magic, in any search for sorcery, witchery, legerdemain, first check the human spirit. —Rod Serling

We are hyper-visual. Take Facebook. Pics are recognized most, while news links with videos get more recognition than news links without, unless said links come with thumbnails of cartoons, exquisite artwork, vintage television shows or naked bodies. It’s clear most of us don’t like to (or have time to) read anymore, and that headlines, even those accompanied by logos — those kitchy visuals of yesteryear — are no longer “visual” enough to ensnare the human eye, even when attached to intelligence. Not a judgment, but an observation and one worth taking note — if only for the abstract prediction one might make of the future of interaction, memory and legacy. We will know ourselves as we know each other.

Social media and the culture of silence

This strange machinery is keeping you from seeing me. We’ve all moved on from here, the colour’s running dry. A drowsy line of wasted time bathes my open mind. —Ride, Chrome Waves

Is technology bringing us together or pulling us apart? A 2014 report hints at the emergence of a culture of silence in social media, where people suppress their views if perceived to be in the minority, for fear of rejection. Pre-internet studies show how people tend not to be vocal about policy issues in public (or among family, friends and coworkers) when they think their views might not be shared. This is called the ‘spiral of silence’.

The Pew Research Center ran a survey to gauge people’s opinions on Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records. The survey found that far fewer Americans are willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story in social media than they are in person, illustrating how the ‘spiral of silence’ holds true for popular social networking sites.

The report also found Facebook users half as likely as others to share their opinions in face-to-face (F2F) settings, suggesting the emergence of a more pervasive culture of silence as mainstream social media grows.

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures, Mad Max: Fury Road

LinkedIn’s plan to bridge sectors

Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner has a big vision for the next 10 years — a plan that now involves matching professionals with social sector projects that can effectively utilize their passions and skills, while giving underserved communities access to creating more economic opportunity. Last year LinkedIn identified TechSoup Global as a potential partner to help build demand for its LinkedIn for Good program, which really excites me and here’s why:

Between 2008 and 2013 LinkedIn membership jumped from 32 to 277 million. (My LinkedIn profile was one of the top 10% most viewed — out of about 200 million — for 2012.) Then in 2014, more than two million members (and this number will grow) signed up for LinkedIn for Good, showing there are plenty of able hands willing to get dirty for a good cause. But the current lack of available work caused by an imbalance between volunteers and program partners means there’s a lot of expertise sitting by the sidelines. Not good if you’re in the game to play.

In this article from Stanford Social Innovation Review John Cary, the former lead of Public Architecture’s 1% program, warns against ‘learned helplessness’, a psychology term that describes what happens when volunteers sign up for work that fails to utilize their potential. Sure disengagement is rough, especially where it can be avoided, but solutions do exist, I’ve seen them. Cary says “building demand is a high-touch affair”, one that “requires significant relationship building” across sectors that are “very segregated in general, so there aren’t a lot of authentic relationships between contrasting cultural boundaries”.

Kyle Reis, TechSoup’s senior director for Global Data Services, sees “an opportunity to collaborate with others working in the space to unlock a potentially enormous resource for thousands of nonprofits around the world”. Translate: it won’t be long before the pro bono space becomes a prospector’s race for the best human resources on the planet. And with a database of more than 600,000 nonprofits worldwide and a service list of more than 100,000 organizations per year, TechSoup Global is in pole position.

Finding a solution to bridge sectors won’t be easy but we know where to start. When we do we can apply that solution to larger cross-sector initiatives. The ‘every day social’ of what we do on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter is a fine way to forge connections that can lead to the cross-sector collaborations Cary alludes to. More demand means we’ll find a solution sooner. And one thing science taught me is that when you find a plan that works, you stick to it.