Neighborhood listservs and neighborhood social networking websites have been described as helping to create social capital, or relationships between people in a neighborhood who use the platforms. Social capital creation has therefore been a key focus of what social networking platforms have to offer at a local level. But what if we were to shift the conversation and design objective away from creating social capital/building social networks towards creating/framing social interaction? What might we see in terms of benefits for supporting community building? To ask this questions I turn to the concept of social infrastructure.
In the face of mitigating damage from natural disasters, the conversation often tends towards the importance of having appropriate physical infrastructures. In a New Yorker article published in January of 2013, Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology at NYU, pushed the conversation beyond physical infrastructure to include a discussion of social infrastructure. Klinenberg describes social infrastructure as the “people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support.”
Pointing to data from the Chicago heat wave of 1995, Klinenberg notes that Latinos in Chicago, who had high levels of poverty, faired better than other ethnic groups because they “lived in densely packed neighborhoods where dying alone is nearly impossible.” Another data point were two neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side, another area of high poverty, where one neighborhood experienced a higher death rate than the other. The conclusion by researchers was that the neighborhood which had fewer deaths had more public space, more sidewalks, and more community organizations that brought “people into contact with friends and neighbors.” In the neighborhood with more public space, neighbors were actively involved in checking up on each other to make sure people were getting the resources they needed during the heat wave.
In these examples, social infrastructure is not first and foremost a reflection of the network of relationships that exists at a local level, rather emphasizes the culture and routines of social interaction at a local level. Social infrastructure has more to do with the idea of sociality, or how people interact and cooperate under pressure.
When we talk about the role of information communication technology for supporting community building at a local level, the conversation has often tended towards talking about cultivating social capital. There is no question that this is an important aspect to consider, however it may be more compelling from a design standpoint to think about how we can inform and support routines and culture that facilitate interaction towards particular objectives thank thinking about how to make a connection.
One example that speaks to a social infrastructure versus social capital design approach is the website and mobile app SnowCrew. SnowCrew facilitates interaction at a local level between people who need help shoveling snow and people who can provide help. With SnowCrew, users are indeed drawn together to help each other, actualizing latent social capital, but they are drawn together around a particular task, creating a culture and routine of local support for a particular purpose. What is particularly fascinating about SnowCrew is that it evolved from the neighborhood social networking platform NeighborsforNeighbors.org (NfN), which was designed as a platform to build social capital at a hyper-local level for neighborhoods in Boston. Over time, NfN became the go-to place for neighbors to organize groups of people to help people who could shovel out their car or sidewalk after a big snow storm. Recognizing the overwhelming trend towards this very unique purpose, the founder of NfN, Joseph Porcelli, created a single purpose platform designed specifically to connect people who need to be shoveled out with those people willing to do it. In this example, I observe how a platform like NfN evolves into a new platform that incorporates into its design the routine and culture around people helping each other after snow storms.
This idea of building routine and purpose into the design of online platforms that facilitate hyper-local interactions is not new. I have suggested in the past that we see this in sharing economy platforms that are designed to facilitate transactions between people around a narrow range or even singular need (think Uber or TaskRabbit). Unlike my previous focus on the role of context in hyper-local platforms, the idea of social infrastructure brings with it a focus on neighborly interaction that speaks to the importance of culture and routine as a critical component to enacting social capital. We can build all the platforms we want for people to come together, and we can certainly wait for emergent behavior to guide the platform towards serving a particular purpose, but it is not impossible, with some degree of participatory design, to create hyper-local information systems geared towards facilitating human interaction around solving specific problems.