In the Spirit of Collaborating

In their 2007 article In the Spirit of Collaborating, Nilan and D’Eredita point out that in the study of cognitive behavior, the moments when people contend with problems or situations are seen as a chunk of time/space about which people collaborate/communicate. This chunk of  time/space is what Nilan and D’Eredita say informs system designs where people converge to share and create meaning to address their situations/solve their problems through access to resources (information/data; computing functionalities; links to others, e.g., experts). 

Taking this concept outside the realm of cognitive science, the authors apply the idea to their definition of community, which refers to the (direct and vicarious) communicating among individuals engaging with or involved in addressing uncertainty in one or more problems/situations.

This idea of community and its relation to dealing with uncertainty got me thinking about the role social networking sites play in helping people in times of uncertainty (I understood uncertainty here as questioning what your next decision will be) A special report in the Jan 30th issue of the Economist talks about how social networking sites are being installed on corporate intranets to allow people to communicate outside of the traditional bureaucratic framework of communication. In the report, one writer points out that:

Often new ideas and insights as well as warnings about potential threats come from informal contacts rather than from formal meetings. The trouble is that existing IT systems are geared towards reinforcing separate silos rather than building bridges between them.

Services such as Yammer and Chatter create a more open workplace by letting people see what others are working on and encouraging sharing. The upshot is that good ideas can emerge from anywhere.

Sociologist James Coleman calls these informal contacts weak ties as opposed to “strong ties which would represent ones relationship with close friends and family. For Coleman, as is mentioned in the Economist quote, “weak ties” are what help us find new and unknown opportunities that fall outside of our initial comprehension of our surrounding environment.

The potential for social networking services to change the relationship between silos does not just exist within the corporate word, it also exists in city neighborhoods, where sociologists and urban design practitioners recognize a lack of public space for people to interact and establish weak ties.

Looking at neighborhood based social networking sites like  Neighbors for Neighbors (NfN) in Boston, we see a complementary space for daily interactions that promotes the opportunity for people to engage in informal contacts and find new information that may help them.

When sociologists like Robert Putnam link the decline of social capital to the decline of peoples use of public space, we see why there is so much excitement around the potential of social networking sites. However in order for these sites to really transform the landscape of city neighborhoods, issues of access and achieving critical mass have to be addressed. Going forward, its is the collaborative work of technologists, community organizers, and urban design practitioners who will have to look at the ways to both increase the awareness of such social networks amongst residents, encourage their use of the sites, and most importantly, improve access to them.

Despite issues of access and ubiquitous integration, there are still valuable work that can be done to bolster the social activity on city based social networks like NfN. Using Nilan’s ideas as cues, participants of NfN should think about the following:

  • For neighborhoods with minimal activity, consider seeding conversations in forums to give people a sense of the types of conversations that can be had on the site
  • Actively inform friends, family, work relations, and acquaintances about NfN
  • Always think of NfN as a go to platform when looking for local solutions to situations and problems.

The value of neighborhood based social networking sites is based on their visibility. While issues of access will take a while to remedy, working to increase peoples awareness of such sites will help to boost the culture of collaboration on the sites and in the end make the site a valuable asset to the community.


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