Today we present a coming series of posts about digital social tools. With this term we mean digital platforms, software, and online projects developed for the improvement of cities and neighbourhoods through direct participation by their citizens. Digital social tools can be open platforms that allow anyone to sign up and collaborate or applications that can be applied to different participatory projects.
What is the social potential of information technology and of the development of open source software and web-based social projects? To answer this question we will begin by establishing a theoretical framework contextualizing this spreading phenomena in contemporary society. In the end we will propose a system for a graphic representation to help us better understand and compare their underlying structure.
“Mente locale” in the “informational city”
A comparison between two concepts and books by the sociologists Franco La Cecla and Manuel Castells will help us to interpret digital social tools as interesting expressions of society.
The term informational city proposed by Manuel Castells explains how the space of the city today is organized by new dynamics and principles that reveal the shift from the industrial economy to the information and knowledge economy. The latter depends on web connectivity and develops in digital exchanges of information, services, and knowledge. The widespread communication networks based on digital devices give birth to the informational city and its “network society,” where economic and social relations arise and connect localities through the web. The potential of the Internet to offer simultaneous communication, and in a way ubiquity, enhances the tendency toward globalization in all its aspects, from global economy to global culture.
The Italian expression “mente locale” (“local mind”) has the meaning of paying attention to a particular situation by mentally placing oneself within it. Franco La Cecla uses the term to explain how identity, knowledge, and culture form in relation to specific places and local qualities, their genius loci. Being and living in the world with a body and a physical presence in discrete places, we can say with La Cecla that we are “made of geography.” Our thoughts and understanding of the world cannot be prescinded from the places we live in and the places in which events and experiences take place.
Franco La Cecla claims that with the coming of modern society and modern urbanism our ability to create deep knowledge and strong identities decreased, due mostly to the difficulty of familiarizing ourselves with surroundings that are planned on principles of functionality and economic productivity instead of identity and social relations. Individuals and communities gradually lost their cultural relationship to the places they inhabit.
The informational revolution seems to enhance this loss of roots. Everything that is mind (thoughts, information, communication, knowledge) has been “despatialized.” Connectivity to a digital network supersedes location in a specific place. When everything can happen on the web, and one can virtually be in different places at the same time, proximity and locality no longer represent a value for the economy. The process of informatization of economy and society seems to be neutralizing space and its values for everyday life.
On the other hand, social and everyday life has rediscovered the need for bodily presence, for sensory experience of real spaces, for face-to-face (or better body-to-body) relations. For instance, virtual education has enhanced rather than replaced traditional classroom-based education. Recent efforts to improve and publicize real public spaces seek to ensure universal accessibility and high quality in order to create opportunities for encounters and activities, for sharing experiences and skills, for building communities. A new kind of public life is arising, one based on grassroots networks between individuals whose independence from political institutions is often claimed by the founders of digital social tools. The aim is to catalyze bottom-up processes of direct democracy and the development of new communities.
Today, perhaps the most influential platform for creating real encounters and improving public spaces is paradoxically and interestingly the web, a horizontal/rhizomatic system with a high potential for quick dissemination of ideas and information where anyone can have access and act as individual. On the internet one can experience a powerful independence and freedom to speak frankly while remaining able to act publicly and maintain awareness of what happens outside.
According to Manuel Castells, social relationships today are characterized by two processes, individuation and communalism, both based at the the same time on physical proximity and online connectivity. The emergence of many public platforms on the internet related to specific places expresses the tendency towards a combination of global networks with local communities, of spaces of flows with spaces of places.
Zygmunt Bauman claims that our society has undergone a process of “fluidification”, becoming more flexible and context-specific, due to a higher displacement capacity of entities and to the development of information technologies.
The concept of identity has faced as well a process of fluidification. Increasing speed and digital connectivity created the possibility of being in different places (both physical and virtual) simultaneously. Therefore, we need to develop a “mobile” identity and flexible mentality in order to quickly adapt to new cultures and ways of living, to different spatial systems and various climates. Also, with the help of digital social tools we are learning how to familiarize with new surroundings, to understand the genius loci of the places we happen to live in, and we are discovering the possibility of belonging to different places, cultures, communities, and identities.
Within the framework of governance policies, where the private sphere seems to be prevailing over the public sphere and impoverishing public life, there is a need to re-think the public and the private as mobile/fluid entities, to accept the blurring boundaries between them and see this new hybrids of public-private as opportunity for new forms of democratization. A related theory is developed by Mimi Sheller and John Urry. According to them, it is possible to promote dynamics of democratization, by flexibly moving between the private and the public and recreating them.
Although risk for censorship and political control is always present, internet has the intrinsic potential for horizontal communication and independence from institutional hierarchies.
Information technology can give the means to open up to new flexible and mobile forms of communication and democratization. Sheller and Urry argue that “changes in democratic possibility that are usually related to macro-structural trends in the ‘globalization’ of markets and states are also tied into these everyday forms of dwelling in mobility and screen-mediated communications”.
Thus, being more flexible and mobile, individuals and communities can constantly re-define and re-build their public and private spaces, and possibly gain more freedom and choices in the definition of their boundaries.
We can say that the reemergence of the value of locality is occurring thanks, in part, to digital networks, which give a new perspective to social and spatial relationships. With these new tools we are regaining and transforming the ability to familiarize with the surroundings we live in, turning the “local mind” into a glocal mind.
About digital social tools
Digital social tools apply a system called Web 2.0 – an intersection of web application features that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability and collaboration on the web. A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact with each other in a social media dialogue as creators – prosumers – of user-generated content. A “prosumer” is the combination of producer and consumer, since information here is not only consumed but also produced by users.
Many of these platforms and projects aim to build systems of direct democracy for a common definition of public issues. Within the wide context of online participation, our series will focus on those projects regarding the quality and status of urban spaces or regarding local initiatives of neighborhoods and urban communities. We will present different types of platforms where citizens have the opportunity to share knowledge about issues of accessibility, security, mobility and quality of public spaces, to propose solutions which can be developed in collaboration with local governments or with other actors (neighbors, communities, institutions, enterprises), and the opportunity to propose public events, projects and meetings.
The scale of the context concerned by these projects and platforms varies, but the scale at which users are supposed to act is usually small, from street to neighborhood to city.
The already explained relationship of digital communication with the rebirth of locality values and renewed concern about the quality of physical spaces is often enhanced by GPS technologies, which concretely and rapidly relate places to digital information. These technologies build around places an augmented reality, where new forms of social dynamics can arise.
Projects featured in this series
What is the scope of a certain tool? How is it deployed and implemented? Is it attached to a single project or can it be adapted and applied to other situations? Who is supposed to be using it? Is it a propietary, closed solution or an open source, free and adaptable software? Below we present a generic diagram showing the categories we will use to represent each project or software in the next posts, in order to provide the readers with a visual framework for comparison.
The variety of application types, projects’ variables and groups of actors will be represented following this basic configuration but flexibly changing it depending on the different structures and links of the projects.
If you know about any interesting project of this kind, please inform us at
We will be happy to add it to our list for the next posts.
Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban Regional Process. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell (1989)
Manuel Castells, LOCAL AND GLOBAL: CITIES IN THE NETWORK SOCIETY, 2001 – http://es.scribd.com/doc/22571191/Local-and-Global-cities-in-the-network-society-Manuel-Castells
Franco La Cecla, MENTE LOCALE / IN ALTRO MARE, Per un’antropologia dell’abitare, Eleuthera 2011
Sheller, M., Urry. J., Mobile Transformations of `Public’ and `Private’ Life, Theory Culture Society, SAGE, 2003