#9: Closer Than They Appear
+ How sharing a key with a stranger builds trust in cities
(Photo Credit: Rani Sahu/Pexels)
As the coronavirus pandemic has sent us to shelter-in-place, people have tried to replicate what we would otherwise do outside on the internet: Facebook is hosting a virtual graduation ceremony next week, main streets and protests have gone digital, and there’s even an app for just staring a stranger in the eyes now. Even celebrities are joining in the fun of imitating life on Animal Crossing.
But amid all this energy to imitate the real world online as we #FlattenTheCurve, it’s key to remember that even pictures on a screen might not be all that they seem. As the Danish news site, Nyheder, demonstrated with this series of clever photos by photographer Ólafur Steinar Gestsson; Gestsson’s photos showed how different angles made it appear like people weren’t social distancing when they actually were.
As people in cities all over the world weigh what our new normal will look like, these tricks of perspective are reflecting our online impulses back out into the real world, too. This week, NPR had a story about what to do when people don’t practice social distancing and it especially tackled this latest iteration of the urge to publicly shame people on social media. (One of my local Twitter followers pointed out that one of the main protagonists of the story, told from D.C., who was getting mad at people for not wearing masks was ironically enough, also violating our mayor’s executive order guidelines by meeting people outside their household to exercise.)
While it is tempting to yell about social distancing guidelines on the internet, Synon Bhanot, a behavioral economics professor at Swarthmore College, described how calling people out online could backfire. Here’s Bhanot’s advice on snapping a picture of improper social distancing and posting it online, from NPR:
"But at the same time, you know, you're also broadcasting a bad norm,"the behavioral economist says. So you're saying, look at all these 50 people in this park, and a lot of people will look at that and say, 'Well, I mean, there are 50 people in the park, though, so maybe it's actually not that bad!'"
Bhanot says it better to post a selfie wearing a mask and encouraging others rather producing content that may even make people double down on the wrong behavior. But with so much other bad news surrounding this crisis, maybe this is one we can nudge with good vibes, like this example below from Detroit.
How to discover the history of your neighborhood, without leaving home - CityLab
Why we’re drawing on our sidewalks again - Curbed
How tech algorithms become infected with the biases of their creators - OneZero
Digital ad downturn may complicate things for tech giants - PBS NewsHour
YouTube brings fact-check panels to search - The Verge
Room Rater, the Twitter account judging everyone’s living rooms, deserves its own ratings - Slate
This AI is creating absurdist memes that are funnier than what most real humans create - Business Insider
Having trouble with the IRS website? Try all caps — yes, really - Los Angeles Times
Shift into action
Next Tuesday, May 5, at 5 p.m. join Civic Signals for a virtual panel discussion on “The Shift,” hosted by the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge. Civic Signals co-director Eli Pariser will join the Institute’s director sociologist Eric Klinenberg, urban planner Toni Griffin, designer Chelina Odbert, sociologist Mona Sloane, and chief digital officer Tony Ageh of the New York Public Library in a discussion about how we develop digital forms of public space as much of our social life moves online, and how this shifts our sense of community.
The panel will explore how vital public spaces are enacted virtually – such as the library, the park, the street - looking at what makes these spaces civically useful in both their physical and their digital form, and asking what we can and must learn from this for a post-COVID-19 world. The discussion will tackle a lot of the big questions—What is the role of public space in society? What do we lose when we lose physical public space, and how do people make up for that in the digital realm?—but you can also submit your own questions via Twitter. You can RSVP right here, and we hope to see you there!
Key to the city
(Photo credit: Ivan Radic/Flickr)
This week, we return to another lesson from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). One of the most repeated lessons from this classic urbanist book is the idea of having “eyes on the street.” The concept boils down the main benefit of Jacobs’ ideas about urban density and encouraging sidewalk life in cities: the more people on the street, the safer that place becomes. The concept has been used by planners and city officials to enact all kinds of policies, ranging from dense mixed-use zoning that encourages foot traffic during all times of day to community policing or worse, surveillance.
But a frequently overlooked aspect of this concept demonstrates an important blurry line between private and public spaces. In the third chapter of Death and Life, Jacobs describes the loose contact encouraged by sidewalks. She writes how even the presence of strangers helps people connect to society while keeping privacy intact:
A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted.
Jacobs, ever the skeptic, rejects the “nauseating” notion of a bland, uniform “togetherness” that planners naively hold as an ideal. Instead, she puts forth another exhibit of neighborhood trust: the public character.
Perhaps I can best explain this subtle but all-important balance in terms of the stores where people leave keys for their friends, a common custom in New York. In our family, for example, when a friend wants to use our place while we are away for a weekend or everyone happens to be out during the day, or a visitor for whom we do not wish to wait up is spending the night, we tell such a friend that he can pick up the key at the delicatessen across the street. Joe Cornacchia, who keeps the delicatessen, usually has a dozen or so keys at a time for handing our like this. He has a special drawer for them.
Now why do I, and many others, select Joe as a logical custodian for keys? Because we trust him, first, to be a responsible custodian, but equally important because we know that he combines a feeling of goodwill with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our private affairs. Joe considers it no concern of his whom we choose to permit in our places and why.
Jacobs argues that informal public characters—storekeepers, bartenders, and the like—allow people to live independently in a city. She argues that it can’t be formalized or institutionalized because something like a government program or say, an online platform that shares extra rooms in houses, couldn’t be trusted the same way. She goes on to describe that same level of trust that encourages sharing lets essential information spread in a neighborhood. “Word does not move around quickly where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking.” Would someone cue up “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” please?
The same can be said for the online civic environment. Social media sites—designed to connect us with our friend networks or our content preferences—can run quality control on their platforms, but building trust means something more fundamentally small-scale and human. That’s part of why it is reassuring to see the latest Pew Research Center survey that people are relying on local news just as much as national during the coronavirus crisis for good information.
It’s helpful to throw disclaimers and fact checks, but it’s almost a game of whack-a-mole when we haven’t found the online version of strangers who can talk some sense into our uncles after their latest Facebook conspiracy rabbit hole. Sites can and should make these interventions, we also need to consider in the long term what it would look like to have strangers we can trust again.
Go ahead, be a stranger,