The Sidewalk Life of Successful Communities


In a perceptive article, "It's a Wonderful Block," about the little stretch of New Haven, Connecticut, that he calls home, Mark Oppenheimer ponders why successful neighborhoods "work." Engaging in a combination of microhistory and social psychology, he found merit in the diverse mix of people, of different ages, backgrounds, and viewpoints, knit together by the physical structure of overhanging trees and generous sidewalks and a commensurate, shared spirit. As Oppenheimer concludes, neighborhoods have a recognizable "feel," although one that is "both fragile and contingent."

Too often we imagine the digital realm as ethereal, otherworldly. But it's human beings all the way down. Humans are the true endpoints of the network, humans are the ones that have structured that network and written the software to do—or not do—certain things. As the social history of technology has shown, we can't discuss digital communities without discussing non-digital, distinctly human emotions. Any sound theory of community building must be built upon feelings from human encounters, online or off. And when we talk about human feelings, seemingly small actions, attitudes, and structures can have an outsized impact.

Technical and physical platforms can promote, or hide, certain kinds of behaviors and thus shape a community in positive or negative ways. Twitter, for instance, doesn't rub it in your face when someone unfollows you. That's not a random (non)feature; it was a decision that a human made at some point about the social cues of the platform, and many of these little elements of Twitter stand in distinction from the sidelong-glance social log that is Facebook.

Similarly, the structure of most scholarly society meetings provide other social cues for their communities. The raised podium, along with fairly few opportunities for in-person commentary, perhaps pushes scholars toward actions that would seem, in most contexts, not very neighborly. However, other parts of these meetings, like the cocktail hours, have more friendly, unifying agendas.

As Oppenheimer notes, successful communities have a higher prevalence of "sidewalk life," of frequent casual encounters, rather than a "backyard life" of independent existence with rarer and more formal encounters with one's neighbors. For those who want to build a community, enhancing the former through social and technical structures seems like a good place to start. The significance of apparently trifling tweets might be deeper than critics imagine.

At the same time, we should remember that it's all fragile and contingent, requiring constant tending by all members of the community.


New Haven is an interesting choice of metaphor. While visiting my brother in New Haven several years ago, I went for an exploratory jog around the magnificent Yale campus. What struck me was the way the prominently-named buildings and gothic structures loomed over the community that lay at the bottom of a hill. My sister-in-law described New haven as a socio-economic battleground between the academy and the working and lower classes that maintained the campus and the supporting township.

As has been discussed earlier this month at MediaCommons, I hope that these digital communities encourage discussions with other disciplines and those outside of the academy. Your recommendation of strengthening the platform and outreach efforts is absolutely key to this and we must, as you also point out, be mindful of the rhetoric being conveyed throughout.

I think this is a great metaphor for digital communities. And I think there is a lot that connects to what Cheryl Ball wrote about yesterday in the utilizing of a diverse group to make the most of an accessable digital academic community. 

I am thinking of the act of starting a community, though. For four months I searched for a place in the wonderful neighborhood I now reside in to get out of a cookie cutter apartment complex. Part of this was because, as a grad student, cookie cutter apartment with a low walkability score was what I could afford. Is there such a social divide in academic communities? If so, how do we become aware of it?

"Sidewalk life" has always been an important part of life for me personally, although I did not have that term to articulate the notion until now. When I was living overseas, a chance encounter with a familiar face from my neighborhood elated me in ways that planned encounters did not (not necessarily better, just differently).

So how do we translate this sidewalk life to digital academic cohorts? Is is commenting on one another's Facebook posts? Or does it require more than that to keep a thriving digital sidewalk life alive?

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