Virtual Square

These days people do not just interact and establish identities in “real” squares, of either the corporate or the civic type. On the contrary, the type of social media platform that the Facebook engineers are building is becoming a second key place where humans congregate each day. The idea of public space, in other words, now extends to the Internet, or places such as blogs, social media sites, and other platforms. These cyber platforms have not traditionally been viewed as “squares.” However, in the modern world, they have many of the same functions: for instance, forging identities, creating social groups, conducting commerce, and rallying around ideas. Indeed, for the younger generation of digital natives, these virtual-hacker squares are arguably as important—if not more important—to their daily lives as traditional plazas. But though these cyber squares are rising in importance, what is perhaps equally striking is that most people give little thought to the question of how these meeting places are designed. This is partly because virtual squares are so new; it may also be because cyberspace tends to feel very ephemeral and transient. Unlike “real” squares, platforms such as Facebook do not carry the weight of tradition and history; they are not “set in stone” but can be constantly remolded each day. And yet in spite of this malleability—or perhaps because of it—the design of these virtual squares matters.

Today this freedom to roam in a physical sense has diminished; children’s independent geographical boundaries have shrunk. Fearful parents these days often prevent children from wandering around in a spontaneous way; they are ferried around in cars, tied up with organized activities, and kept away from public spaces—such as squares—to keep them “safe.” So instead of congregating with friends at a mall, behind a bike shed, in the streets, or in a wood, teens are now hanging out online, in virtual space.

But the more time we spend in disembodied cyberspace, the more time and money we must spend thinking about the architecture of the “real world”—if nothing else, because the next generation will be growing up in an environment that will be radically different from what we have known or can put on a drawing board.



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