There’s a small coastal village on Lake Erie in Vermillion, Ohio that is the best explanation I can find to answer the question: Why does social media matter? This takes a pretty big leap, so please indulge me for a few paragraphs.
This beautiful little village was built at the last turn of the century as a summer gathering place for a church community. The houses are cottages, all white clapboard and shake, with ornate front porches. They are built very close to one another with a strip of flowerbed for a front yard bordered by narrow sidewalks and streets that might let two Model T’s pass without scraping fenders. In a word it’s cozy.
Life in the village is quiet and slow — a throwback in time. People sit on their front porches along tree lined streets. Children and parents casually walk to the beach, playground, general store, or church. People greet passers by from their porch. Some stop by for a chat, others simply wave and comment on the beautiful weather.
My grandparents lived in nearby Cleveland. They had small clapboard and shake houses with nice front porches too. Their houses were newer and weren’t as close to one another. They had front yards, albeit modest ones, and detached garages. The streets were wide enough for normal traffic and on-street parking. When I was little I remember sitting on the porches and talking to neighbors as they passed by, but not when I got older.
My house is bigger than both of my grandparents houses combined. It is skinned in cedar shake but that was done as a retro touch. It has a two-car attached garage that serves as our front door — we enter and leave the house in a car. We don’t have sidewalks. Yards average an acre or more in our neighborhood. We wave to the neighbors and they wave back. It’s a sterile existence. So, my wife and I did something a little crazy. We built a porch — a great big wrap around front porch with seating, lighting, tables, and flowers. Now we see our neighbors. They stop by the porch. We talk. We laugh. Sometimes we just wave and comment on the weather.
That’s when I figured out why social media is so hot Social media gives everyone the capability to interact in the way we used to do on the front porch. Social media is a virtual front porch.
Think about it. Why did we stop hanging out on Grandma’s front porch? Because of central air conditioning. It sealed up the house and made it more comfortable than the porch. We sat inside and watched TV. Pretty soon houses weren’t built with porches and garages became attached to the house. Yards got bigger and houses got farther apart. Suburban sprawl, AC, TV, and McMansions killed spontaneous social interaction. As neighborhoods changed so did our sense of community.
So what is the result? New urbanism and social media. We are building physical and virtual communities that are a throwback to the village on the shore of Lake Erie. Why? Because it is innate human nature to want to interact with other people on a social level. We crave it. There is a market for it because demand drives markets.
New urbanism is easy to understand as an answer to the desire for a sense of community. But social media and virtual communities seem to be a real stretch, don’t they? Not really. Look at Twitter — the machine gun prattle of 140 character conversations between virtual strangers. On the surface it seems nuts, or annoying at best. To understand it, record a conversation in the office the next time a group gathers to look at a silly YouTube video. Then transcribe the conversation and attribute comments to the people who spoke them. It looks just like a Twitter conversation — there’s a link to a video followed by snickers, OMG, LOL, and individual sentences of friends bantering about the video, then it stops and everyone goes back to work. This is the same kind of social interaction that used to take place among friends on front porches. That’s why social media works. It gives us a place to connect to people and banter about the things that interest us. So, stop by my porch and say hi: http://www.twitter.com/spurdave