Mobile connectivity and urban interaction

What does it mean to be social?

Being “social” used to mean that a person was outgoing and enjoyed interacting with people – an extrovert. Today, most equate the term “social” with social media and online communities.

The most social among us are perceived to be those who maintain several social media accounts and have a large group of followers they interact with regularly. Has this sociological shift also had an impact on how we interact with our physical urban spaces? Do we even take notice of our environment while we’re walking around the city with our mobile devices?

Emily Badger (@emilymbadger), writing for Atlantic Cities, recently profiled a team of researchers who have found that the use of smart phones has weakened the degree of social interaction in our public gathering spaces.

I don’t believe the conclusion here is a sociological revelation by any means, since most of us have observed the trend personally. (Right now I’m recalling the last person I walked by at the grocery store who appeared to be having a heated conversation with their self, only to discover they were talking on their mobile phone using a hands-free headset.)

The article is summed up with a proposal that our physical public spaces may need to be redesigned to accommodate the “new” social, using the very same mobile technology in a socially-positive way. But in what ways can mobile technology increase physical interaction with each other and the urban environment?

Here are examples of online resources and activities that are already attempting to do just that:

  1. Meetup (www.meetup.com) is an online community with over 9.5 million members in 45,000 cities that makes it easy to find and sign up for events with others with similar interests and causes. “Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.”
  2. Foursquare (www.foursquare.com) allows users to use tools that help “keep up with friends, discover what’s nearby, save money and unlock deals.” What is significant about this tool is that the user is actually “checking-in” at a physical location, where other social media activities are not location-dependent.
  3. Geocaching is an activity that uses mobile devices, including smart phones, to participate in real-life explorations as individuals or in teams. According to Geochaching.com, “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.”
  4. Social Media Breakfast (www.socialmediabreakfast.com) is a regularly occurring breakfast program that promotes “feeding your belly and your brain”!  The organization, which currently has more than 40 cities around the world with affiliated groups, states two goals of the program: (1) Face-to-Face Networking and (2) Education on “social media best practices for business”. Locally, Social Media Breakfast Fort Wayne (SMBFW) meets the last Tuesday of each month. Check out details on Twitter (@SMBFW) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/smbftw ).

Are these efforts moving us in the right direction, and if so, what can we do to build on what’s already in progress? If not, what strategies will redirect us toward reclaiming physical interaction?

What creates community?

What creates community? Shared stories.

Shared stories require three things, two of which are obvious:

  • A story, or any kind of happening, even a small happening, like a game of cards.
  • Some sharing, that is, a group of people who experience the same happening.

But a shared story also requires:

  • A first-hand, intimate knowledge that the story is being shared.

A group of individuals sitting at home watching the same show different shows on separate televisions does not create community. But the smallest thing shared with a neighbor does.

An example of a shared story is the above photo, which was taken in downtown Wheeling, W.Va., in 1950. A parade had gone up Market Street — you can see it in the background. Today, downtown Wheeling is almost vacant and you must drive ten miles to a shopping mall to do any substantial shopping.

— photo from the author’s personal collection

How to talk to strangers

Being nice to strangers is never easy and being polite in public never comes without some training. But it’s still shocking how incivility and rudeness have become so common even as technology makes communication easier.

Today was communication day at the YLNI Leadership Institute — led by Anthony Juliano of Asher Agency and the Soundbite Back blog. One topic that generated heat was the misuse of cell phones and texting devices while other people are nearby.

Stories of annoyance included people who blabbed on their phones in line at airports and colleagues who checked email on their BlackBerrys during meetings.

How can this be? Do they not see all the people standing around them?

Maybe not.

Whether out of fear or out of selfishness, Americans have created a culture in which we may meet only those people we choose to meet. We have less and less incidental contact with those around us.

If you live in a suburban home and work in a downtown building, you can complete your commute from bed to desk without meeting anyone you do not know. You can get into your car in your attached garage, drive in isolation with thousands of other motorists, find your space in the parking garage and walk across the skyway right into your office building. The first person you talk to is the same guy you see on the elevator every day.

So when we’re thrust into a group of strangers at a bank or coffee shop — when we don’t use the drive-through — many of us reach for the familiarity of our phone or BlackBerry. We have forgotten how to talk to strangers. We’re so used to being isolated that we can easily forget the real people standing right next to us.

For those of you who are guilty as charged, you need to practice civility. Push yourself into situations in which you have to talk to strangers. Here are some things I try to do:

  • Avoid drive-though windows.
  • Don’t use the auto-checkout lines at the grocery store.
  • Park on the street.
  • Turn off your phone and other devices when you are in meetings or other conversations.
  • Above all, whenever you can, walk instead of drive.

Leave comments with your ideas that nudge you into incidental contact with strangers.

Britney Spears, “American Idol” and the corporate Cassanova

Why did Britney Spears hit such a personal and professional low? It’s not a typical Good City question, but I heard the echoes of one of our themes in a story on MSNBC headlined, “Who Can Save Her Image?”

Here’s the money quote from Eric Foster White, who co-wrote six songs on Britney’s first album, “Baby One More Time”:

“You have to understand that there’s nobody in the equation who stood to benefit by giving it to her straight.”

Let’s say that sad truth again: Nobody stood to benefit by giving it to her straight.

Why did Britney implode? Why do horrible singers try out on “American Idol”? Why did that now-canned WellPoint executive think he could propose to and dump 12 women in two years?

Because they were surrounded by people — or surrounded themselves with people — who had no qualms with keeping silent about uncomfortable truths.

But don’t gloat. Perhaps you’re not on television, but the same lesson applies. Do you do anything that would cause the people around you to shrink from telling you the truth? Is there a sensitivity you wear or an anger you nurture that tells potential allies to back away from certain criticisms?
Hebrews 10:24-25 instructs us, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” Life in community should mean life with people who are willing to challenge you, not life with people who just want to egg on your selfishness and sin, perhaps for their own benefit.

This is why it’s perilous to make fun of celebrities like Britney Spears. Given enough fame and fortune, too many of us would be in the same sad situation.

The four saddest words

What are the four saddest words you might hear after church on Sunday?

“See you next week!”

What a depressing sentiment! We saints gather together every Sunday under one roof. We enter the very sanctuary of God together, we praise Him together, we receive the Word together and share Christ’s body and blood together. We are, in fact, knitted together as One Bride, as the very Body of Christ Himself.

Then, so often, we make no effort to reinforce our solidarity and community with one another between Sunday mornings.

“See you next week!”

That means I won’t invite you over for supper and you won’t try to find any common activity that we can share. I won’t see you at the store or at a coffeehouse. In fact, it means it’s our intention to live completely separate lives from one another, lives that touch for only a few hours a week out of the hundred hours a week we spend awake.

“See you next week!”

Don’t let those four words be the last ones you say to your brothers and sisters tomorrow. Try these instead:

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Come over for lunch!”

“Let’s get together soon.”

These sound so simple as to be too obvious. But we can build each other up only if we see each other more than once a week. Let’s clear our schedules for each other.