New Spatialism: Reclaiming Social Space In Web Media

I am going to be leading a Social Media Masterclass at the Thinking Digital conference on Wednesday, as just one element of a two week trip in Europe. Last week I was in Hamburg for the Next09 conference, and Andreas Vascellari got a video of my presentation on the Open Enterprise 2009 study, and interviewed me, as well. This week, it’s Thinking Digital, Futuresonic, and Somesso, in Newcastle, Manchester, and London. Yikes.

But having a whirlwind tour with four very different presentations is an interesting experience, particularly since I get a chance to stare out the window and try to get down what I really believe on various topics.

For Thinking Digital I will be leading a two hour masterclass on social media. I opted to go with a ‘late night TV’ approach, where I am the host and I have various guests that join me one by one: Dan Lyons, JP Rangaswami, and Paul Smith. Each has the option to do some schtick for a few minutes – although most are opting to just sit down for an interview – and I am starting off with a monologue. I just wish we could have a band. After the first hour of the show we will switch to an interactive mode, where I will wander the floor with a mike, involving the attendees very directly in a give-and-take with my guests.

So I had a chance to think about what I wanted to say in my monologue to set the context for a masterclass in social media. Perhaps those attending want me to focus on the nuts-and-bolts of being a successful blogger or driving more revenue or branding your blog. I will make sure my guests and I touch on those topics later in the show, but I wanted to use my starting spot for a different purpose.

Looking back on ten years of blogging, I think we have arrived at a turning point, where we have to reclaim the social space in web media.

Sprawl, originally uploaded by Stowe Boyd.

Ten years ago, when I started blogging, it wasn’t called blogging yet. I thought I was writing an ‘e-zine’ although it had all the characteristics of a blog: reverse chronological entries, categories, and so on.

We were like pioneers, fooling around out in the wilderness, cutting crude roads, building villages.

Relatively soon, however, this personal publishing by the fringe lunatics became big business and old media arrived. Now the leading ‘blogs’ are either run by old media giants, or bloggers who have become new media giants. Social media has been strip-malled. The funky soulfulness of the early days has been replaced by SEO, ad networks, and ersatz earnestness.

The reality is that so-called social media – even in its earlier, Birkenstock and granola days – wasn’t very social. We didn’t call it that until much later, anyway. We thought of it as personal publishing, and it adopted the basic dynamics of publishing. Most notably, there was a publisher or author and then there were readers. It seemed more egalitarian since anyone could be a publisher, but still there was a broadcast media dynamic despite the fact that anyone could argue or agree with someone else’s posts on their own blog. Then for a few years, we just called it blogging. Rhymes with slogging, because, in the final analysis, most people didn’t blog: too hard, too much work, not rewarding enough.

But the format is perfect for publishing companies, which is why the largest ‘blogs’ now are generally corporate media machinery. And as the blogosphere has become an increasingly corporate neighborhood, people are moving out.

I noticed a few years ago that comments seemed to be moving from blogs into faster paced social tools, like Facebook and then streaming apps like Twitter. (Twitter has become so popular that most of the competitors have closed shop). People are moving to where things are more social, where the author/audience divide is less sharp, and where the scale of interaction is human-sized. This is the new loft district: social networks.

Social networks are truly social, where web media isn’t, very.

Social networks are really about individuals and their personal relationships with others. So, if web media is to really become social – which it isn’t at present – we need to take what we have learned from other, more social tools, and take another run at social media.

New Urbanism, originally uploaded by Stowe Boyd.

Using an analogy from city planning and architecture, we need a rethinking of the basics: something like the New Urbanism movement, that tried to reclaim shared urban space in a way that matches human needs, and moved away from gigantic and dehumanizing cityscapes of the mid and late twentieth century, where garbage trucks seemed more at home than a teenage girl walking a dog.

So, we need a New Spatialism movement, to rethink web media and reclaim the social space that is supposed to be central to so-called social media. Some web media may just remain what it is, like an industrial district at the edge of town. But at least some parts of web media should be reconceptualized, and reconstructed to get back to human scale. Just as New Urbanism is about organizing streets, sidewalks, and plazas to support the growth of social capital, New Spatialism would help us channel interactions on line to increase sociality, and thereby increase the growth of social capital.

New Spatialism is based on the idea that our primary motivations for being online are extra-market drivers: we are not online for money, principally. We have created the web to happen to ourselves: to shape a new culture and build a better, more resilient world. And we need better media tools than we have at present, to make that a reality.

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