Space, Place, Social Networking and Social Change

I hold onto magazines for a long time. A quick survey of my house will turn up a wealth of magazines from the past two years and even a smattering of periodicals from five or text years ago. It is something I picked up from my mom, who had wicker baskets of magazines tucked into every corner of my house growing up. We have book shelves with vast editions of National Geographic and Newsweek. I think the force of this habit, learned at a young age, has combined with two other facets of my personality to create a nearing hording mentality when it comes to these publications. I can’t read magazines cover to cover, and am constantly skipping around – which leaves me convinced that I have missed some great nugget of writing in-between unturned pages. And I love the magazine as a format. I am fascinated with the making of magazines and their history in things like political pamphlets and small presses.

All of which is a preface to my main point. I was recently flipping through an old Smithsonian magazine (fished out of a wicker basket that used to be in my mom’s house but now occupies a corner of my little apartment) and began reading about Jon Kleinberg’s research on social networks and online communities.

Kleinberg’s research builds upon the famous work by Stanley Milgram who coined the idea of “six degrees of separation.” Spurred Milgram’s research Kleinberg looks at the networks that connect people online. This was of particular interest to me because I work for a national advocacy organization who uses social networks and new online tools to organize communities across the country around local and national issues. I have been amazed by the ways in which some of these new tools have connected me to people across the country/world. However, this decentralized networking is also complemented by a profoundly localized aspect of social networks too. Some of my most successful efforts to use social networking tools for organizing have been around local events in which 75% of the people who I reach are from a given area. It has left me wondering about the potential for their social networks to help achieve the kind of mass mobilization needed for a truly national campaign.

Kleinberg’s research helped me understand this trend a bit better. Kleinberg has run his “small-world” experiments using data from five million members of the blogging and social network Web site LiveJournal. This is from the Smithsonian article:

“He was particularly curious to know how the physical distance between members of the online community affects the likelihood of their associating. He found that even in cyberspace, friendships depend on proximity. (In fact, the probability that people know each other is inversely related to the square of the distance between them.) ‘Why should it matter online if someone is 10 miles away, 50 miles away or across the globe?’ he says. ‘You would think friends might be uniformly spread out around the world. That’s not what happened. You still see heavy traces of geography.’”

Even though I had witnessed this for myself in my work, this point struck me: place still matters. While I am deeply committed to and concerned with the notion of place and sense or place I had definitely accepted the common assumption that the new and swiftly expanding online communities like MySpace and Facebook somehow diminished the role of our physical locations, our place. Kleinberg’s findings sent me back to a paper I had written in graduate school on space and place in literature. The central ideas in my paper were drawn from the human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan.

In his 1977 book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan writes “Space and place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted. When we think about them, however, they may assume unexpected meanings and raise questions we have not thought to ask” (Space and Place 3). Instead of social networks dismantling the importance of these ideas I wonder if there are ways in which they actually reassert the need to consider space and place anew and look for the “unexpected meanings” that might emerge.

To that end, this is another quote from the same text that seems worth parsing for what it might tell us about the intersection of human relationships in on and offline spaces. “Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world,” writes Tuan. “Space lies open; it suggests the future and invites action.” In this way, it is perhaps no wonder that online communities are often referred to as “spaces” hinting at all the meanings Tuan outlines above.

Tuan continues, “On the negative side, space and freedom are a threat. A root meaning of the word ‘bad’ is ‘open.’ To be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable. Open space […] has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed.” In this expansion of the idea of openness, we again see echoes of the online world, wrought with concerns over identity theft, online stalking, and child predators. Additionally we can also see the danger and allure of online spaces as blank slates for millions of people to project their meaning. In many ways the power of bloggers has been the ability to impose meaning upon these spaces and have those online meanings impact reality offline.

“Enclosed and humanized space is place,” suggests Tuan. “Compared to space, place is a calm center of established values. Human beings require both space and place. Human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. In open space one can become intensely aware of place; and in the solitude of a sheltered place the vastness of space beyond acquires a haunting presence. A healthy being welcomes constraint and freedom, the boundedness of place and the exposure of space.” (Space and Place 54)

Before I consider this last quote in terms of social networks and online communities I want to offer one other Tuan quote that I think build upon these ideas and clarifies the interdependence of identity on the ideas of space and place. Tuan writes, “Identity is defined in competition and in conflict with others: this seems true of both individuals and communities. We owe our sense of being not only to supportive forces but also to those that pose a threat. Being has a centre and an edge: supportive forces nurture the centre while threatening forces strengthen the edge.”

Tuan’s notion that we need both constraint and freedom, and that space and place operate differently and complementary to shape identity, offers perhaps one suggestion about the popularity of social networks. These online communities are places where people can expose themselves to a kind of space (the virtual community of a given network) while also developing a sense of space (their own page or groups which they create or join). However, what does Tuan’s notion of identity formation suggest to us about organizing and activism? How might we rethink the ways we use social networks for social change, if we were to fully account for the workings of both virtual and real spaces and places?

While this is a complex set of questions, one initial answer seems to me that we ought to create online campaigns that allow people to step into open spaces, experiencing something for the first time, moving themselves to an “edge,” as Tuan describes it. But we cannot leave them there. We must also provide experiences where they can find grounding and commonality, where they can understand the proximity of the issue, or the other people engaged in this work. Kleinberg’s research is an important reminder about the necessity of people to be able to locate themselves and to feel proximity with others in your group, cause or campaign. In this way, friends are perhaps the best recruiters of other friends.

How else might the intersection of space, place, and social networking shape the way we try to effect change? I would love to hear your ideas.

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