Urban Planning & Online Communities November 2012

Yesterday I read chapter 2 “The use of sidewalks: safety” from Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and found myself fascinated with the way that a city’s streets are self-policing by way of watchful eyes. The premise is that safety is not a function of a city’s population density, socioeconomic class, or police presence, but rather a function of the ability for residents to watch the streets. It is human nature to eventually feel ownership of and desire order, not chaos, in one’s neighborhood.

When a city is organized in such a way that residents are able to see the streets from their homes and easily intervene when unorderly conduct occurs, it becomes naturally safe. People are not afraid to go out, because they feel that there are enough watchful eyes on them when they go out, and as a result, more and more people go out and add even more watchful eyes. It is a positive feedback loop. Much of the architecture and urban planning styles of the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s was ignorant of these facts; architects felt that public spaces should spread people out and keep private and public spaces as separate as possible. This ended up exaggerating crime – housing projects and suburbs (Los Angeles, for example) became some of the most dangerous places one could live, while the former style of mixed-use blocks of apartments and shops were much safer in relation.

At some point in my reading, I made the connection between cities and online communities – think of MMORPG’s, Craigslist, or CouchSurfing.org, for example. They have a surprising amount of characteristics in common. Both are the collision grounds of new ideas; cities allow – or force – people to share ideas and information through sheer proximity. Online communities are built specifically to allow people to share ideas and information. Both allow people to interact in group settings as well as in private 1-to-1 communications. Both allow people to broadcast information to the masses. And elegantly, the metrics with which we measure a city can be mapped to the metrics with which we measure online communities:

City Online Community
Population Number of member
Population density Information density
Transportation Ease of traversing the community’s information (search, website navigation, etc)
Crime Number of fraudulent interactions or false information
Productivity (GDP) Amount of information generated per member

So how can we take what we know from urban planning and apply this to online communities? The next part of this essay will provide one example. Be warned, however, that I am about to take you through a gloomy story. I sincerely hope that you do not judge CouchSurfing.org solely on this example, as it is an isolated and rare occurrence within the community…

When I travel, I generally try to find members from the CouchSurfing.org community to stay or meet up with as I enjoy the experience of meeting locals and getting to know a city through the guidance of someone who has lived there for some time. I’ve met many of my close friends through CouchSurfing and I’ve had many great conversations with other CouchSurfers. Think of it a community of self-actualized, educated, cultured, and well-traveled people. That said, not all members of the CouchSurfing community are good people. There are certainly the crazies, and worse, there are the predators. It’s rare, but they do exist.

Last Saturday, I was walking around downtown Boston with another CouchSurfing.org member and we got into a conversation about the community, and how there is one particular man in the Boston area that stalks young, naive, foreign, and often desperate travelers and takes advantage of them by asking them to do inappropriate things, insisting that its normal and that they have to do these things unless they want to be without a place to sleep that night. To a well-traveled American that speaks perfect english, it would be completely obvious that the interaction is completely wrong and perverted – but to a not-so-well-traveled foreigner that does not know much about American culture, does not speak great english, and had not budgeted money for the night to stay in a hotel or hostel, they can become coerced into the situation and may not know how to escape the situation. After hearing about the story I was disturbed and disgusted. My mind could not stop wondering how and why such interactions happen – and continue to happen, and what could be done to stop them. One would think that over time, the behavior would somehow become known and the community would intervene. But this has not happened. The man still stalks young travelers.

So, upon reading about the way that cities self-police their streets through watchful eyes and neighborly intervention, and upon making the connection between online communities and cities, I realized – this creep is able to take advantage of his travelers because he interacts with them under the radar. He sends them private messages that nobody else can see. Had he tried to lure in travelers where other members of the community could see that he was trying to host them for the night, other members would immediately recognize that the infamously perverted man was inviting in travelers and would inform them to stay away from him. The minor change of moving an interaction from a private space to a public space immediately reduces the chances of a corrupt interaction to almost zero – but as long as these initial interactions are kept private, there are no sets of watchful eyes to keep things in check.

Parallel scenarios occur on Craigslist, too – users are constantly transacting on the online marketplace. Cars, houses, sailboats… just about anything you can think of are consantly being bought and sold. I’ve had almost all positive experiences with Craigslist, and overall, the company has dramatically improved the quality of my life. I’ve found just about every one of the my last seven apartments on Craigslist. That said, there are plenty of scams on Craigslist. They’re actually quite common – most are simply ploys to steal your email and sell it to spammers, but some are quite dangerous and could really put you at a loss. Others are simply unfair prices that go unnoticed. Again, I would argue that much of the reason that these scams are able to exist is that all interactions on Craigslist are done in private.

Someone offers to sell a boat for $3,000 above the fair market price. Because there are no other boats of its kind also for sale on the site, a naive buyer buys the boat $3,000 over price. Had the transaction been public, another member of the community could have stepped in and intervened Another member could have posted a note that the boat was over priced, or seen that someone was offering to purchase it and warned them. There would have been an element of community intervention.

In contrast, however, there are sites online where such community intervention is allowed to take place. Reddit, Hacker News, and Stack Overflow are a few examples – all interactions are public. When you reply to someone’s post, everyone sees your reply. If you post something that is false – whether by accident or to intentionally as a fraud, you will be corrected If you attempted to scam someone, it will last all of about 5 minutes before another member of the community will intervene and point out that you are a fraud to the rest of the community. Most of these communities even have built-in ways for members to up-vote and down-vote content – a great idea, as content that does not meet the community’s quality standards or that is deemed to be invalid is quickly dismissed and removed from the community totally.

These communities are embracing the self-policing ideals that Jane Jacob’s observes, allowing them to become safe and members’ behavior to become naturally self-regulated.