Are online social networks the new cities?

You may have seen that Nesta is planning it’s forthcoming Innovation Edge conference which is shaping up to be a really interesting day.  In preparing for the event I casually mentioned to the organisers that it might be interesting to have a session on the topic of social networks as the new cities. This casual comment has now morphed into a great line up of speakers including Michael Birch (Bebo), Richard Leese (Manchester City Council), Jon Gisby (Ch4), Inkie (Street Artist and SEGA) and Charlie Leadbeater (We-think Author).

The session is getting very popular so I’m getting a little nervous about how the themes we should and could debate and discuss. So I thought I’d ask readers of this blog if there were particular points of view of questions you might have for any of the panelists that we can feed in to the preparation for this session?

My take, for what it’s worth, is that cities have traditionally been the financial, social and creative of the world. However technology now enables new centres of gravity to form online and we now carry our ‘communities’ on the devices in our pockets? I think this is profoundly impacting on the way we connect, interact and collaborate and will fundamentally change our cities and traditional social hubs. Obviously the death of cities is far from being realised with most cities growing rather than contracting, so we still crave the interaction and benefits that close proximity affords. And yet many people complain that we don’t know our neighbours and our communities are increasingly isolated. With our expanding and increasingly global social networks, what do you think this will mean socially, politically and geographically in 5, 10 or even 20 years time?

These are all huge themes and I’m not expecting complete answers, but I’d really welcome any thoughts and ideas you might have that we could pose to the panel to discuss and debate at the event. BTW, the event will be webcast so if you can’t make it you will still be able to see what happens.


  1. The modern web is a reflection of the real world so social nets as cities sounds about right. However, some of the massive social nets also have the big city anonymity problem, which I think people are trying to counteract by going online. As a result the online villages and niches are often the more interesting, friendly places to hang out. I’m looking forward to this session particularly.

  2. Thanks James. The anonymity angle is really interesting as it is a fine balance and we often complain of having too much or too little. I hear that some casinos have created faraday cages around their buildings to block out wireless interuptions to the gambling experience. Getting the balance right between interaction and isolation will be challenging.

  3. One needs to look at social trends, which shape our attitudes to our neighbours _and_ our desire to use social networks. Our ‘increasingly global social networks’ are more a symptom than an agent of chance. Practically, my predictable answer would be that where social network tools can be valuable they should be designed as _enhancements_ more than parallels to the real world/city. For instance, the Jaiku mobile client uses Bluetooth to facilitate finding one’s friends in one’s physical locality.

  4. Nico – thanks for the comment. I agree that the tools should enhance not replace real world interaction. I’m always surprised at the extreme locality of many communities, especially technology literate communities. Perhaps it’s the reaction by people who spend a lot of time looking at a screen, that they need to get out and talk to real people more regularly. Anyway, given the panel we have at our disposal at the conference, what one question could and should we direct at them?

  5. Hi Roland
    Mark Wieczorek from Design 21 Social Design Network wrote this interesting post on networks – comparing them to the naturalistic growth of older cities – which are much more community/cluster friendly than modern cities.
    I think the degree of control exercised when developing online networks could make the difference between them working or not. The more organic and self-sustaining, the more opportunity there will be for the extreme collaboration you describe, because it won’t restrict itself to single specialisms.
    If online networks are to serve as cities they need to ensure they are more multi-dimensional than most are currently.

  6. A quick and dark thought from The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr. He sees a bleak future of the web even more segregated than cities and rains on the web idealists’parade saying that increased cultural impoverishment and social segregation are as likely as greater harmony and understanding. This is based on the fact that is easier for websters to move and agglomerate than in the real world of mortgages, schools and neighbours. Better keep hold of real cities for now then!

  7. If social networks are cities, how far will they sprawl?
    I’d be interested in hearing the panel’s thoughts as to whether social nets are sustainable in their current walled garden form – or whether they are the beginning of the entire open web becoming a social platform.
    Looking forward to this session a lot.

  8. Online social networks are powerful and one would hope that the growth of online cities does not equate to the demise of offline cities. 3 points come to mind:
    – anonymity online is problematic, with it comes problems of impersonation and ID theft.
    – trust is linked to the first point. Trust is in short supply in big cities, online this will be magnified. When it comes to business how do we know who can we trust? How long before an independently verified digital signature is available?
    – the shape of our personal neighbourhoods is changing. zones where we live, work, play, sleep are becoming physically separated, the linkages are virtual (online) or transient (tranport, comms).
    I look forward to the event!

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