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Still Stuck in Traffic (Again)

When I tell people I have a blog, I usually say I write about cities and urbanism. The reason I find cities interesting enough to write about is straightforward: Cities are full of people. They’re the focal points of human civilization—where that civilization is made and where it manifests itself. If this weren’t true, there would be a lot less to say about cities.

Anyone who is interested in theaters of human activity—which cities are—should be equally fascinated by the internet, which is also full of people and concentrates the interactions between them. Like cities, the internet is another place where civilization is being produced and an ideal lens through which to observe said civilization. As the internet matures, it increasingly feels like a multitude of cities without buildings, and it becomes more entangled with the real cities that its users inhabit. Urbanists still study Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities and read its prescriptions for streets, sidewalks, and buildings as sacred commandments; there’s a real need, however, for a new Jane Jacobs to make sense of and humanize the digital streetscapes where people now spend as much if not more of their time.

Source: Adweek

I’ve written a lot about Facebook on Kneeling Bus. If I seem obsessed with the social network it’s because of Facebook’s inescapable presence in the contemporary world. I’m tempted to say that Facebook itself is like a huge city, but that would actually be an understatement for something with more than a billion users. Instead of a city, Facebook is more like pure infrastructure: used by people everywhere for a multitude of purposes, and a common thread that runs through (and often defines) diverse, far-flung places.

Facebook has compared itself to a chair but if anything it’s like a car. That is, a Facebook account is a car and Facebook itself is the massive system of roads where we drive that car. As more parts of life become dependent on this infrastructure, it becomes less of a diversion and more of a chore. “I want to get rid of it, but I can’t,” is something I have heard many people say about their cars, and I’ve started hearing people (including myself) say it about Facebook. You can navigate the world without either, but doing so requires extra discipline and favorable circumstances—such as living in a city with good transit.

Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan recently made an optimistic but convincing argument that Facebook has become too big to fail. In other words, there’s a case for nationalizing the network. Roads and other transportation infrastructure have remained public for similar reasons—they need to stay open—but urban planners have been fixated on cars and the problems they cause ever since American cities were more or less rebuilt to accommodate them. As Facebook makes its transition from luxury to necessity, we might eventually view it with similar chagrin.

6 Comments on “Still Stuck in Traffic (Again)”

  1. I like your analogy of Facebook as a virtual highway system. Whenever a highway gets re-routed, however, it’s usually to improve traffic flow, and the driver ends up with a better experience. Facebook’s continuous introduction of new features is something else entirely. I have yet to perceive any improvement in my Facebook experience with any iteration of the “new” Facebook — it strikes me as change for change’s sake, to show off their technical bells and whistles, and perhaps (here I probably sound paranoid) to keep users a little confused so they don’t notice how much saleable personal information is being wheedled out of them.

    There are practical reasons limiting how often a highway gets rebuilt — it costs money, it takes time, traffic is a mess during construction, etc. A virtual highway, however, can be reconstructed offline and go up suddenly overnight. Drivers who were stuck in traffic jams while the concrete highway was under construction are thrilled and relieved when the new road opens, but virtual highway users find themselves suddenly baffled by a new design they didn’t ask for, and can’t opt out of.

    It seems symptomatic of the internet generation to think that products must be endlessly improved — a sort of virtual planned obsolesence, if you will. This make some sort of capitalist sense when it comes to physical objects — let’s make people buy a new computer or a new cellphone every 2 years — but how does it benefit Facebook? I’m curious to know if you see how that works, because it makes zero sense to me.

  2. kneelingbus says:

    You’re right, I understand why hardware like computers and phones must constantly be upgraded, but it’s less evident why Facebook is constantly changing. One reason is probably that the employees of a company like Facebook need to stay busy, and they won’t stay busy by just maintaining the status quo. A lot of it is experimentation, too: seeing what works and what doesn’t. Unlike highway engineers, Facebook is doing something unprecedented. On the other hand, Twitter is an interesting contrast because it doesn’t overhaul itself or add new features nearly as frequently as Facebook.

    I also think the physical/virtual difference between highways and Facebook is an interesting point. Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook is able to make a lot of mistakes while tinkering with their code. Nobody who builds highways would ever say that.

  3. Greg Linster says:

    You wrote: “Facebook has compared itself to a chair but if anything it’s like a car.” I think that’s close, but not quite right. Facebook is like a car that can also fly.

  4. You wrote: “Facebook has compared itself to a chair but if anything it’s like a car.” I think that’s close, but not quite right. Facebook is like a car that can also fly.

  5. kneelingbus says:

    I’d be curious to hear you expand upon that analogy. Facebook is certainly more flexible and fluid than a car, so the flying car analogy does make sense. I do think that any cross-era comparison, like the one I introduced here, has serious limitations (I only found it useful to make the specific point about technologies becoming millstones around our necks).

  6. […] constantly compare the pervasive Social Network—Facebook, Twitter, and everything else—to physical urban space because certain dynamics operate so similarly in both environments. It should be obvious by now […]

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