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A Twitter in the City

Will the red-hot microblogging platform Twitter change the way we live in our cities, how we call for help in an emergency, or even help rally a group to topple the city's government? Or is it a frivolous technology that simply atomizes our thoughts and relationships into 140-character bits?

Robert Goodspeed | @rgoodspeed | April 8, 2009, 7pm PDT
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Will the red-hot microblogging platform Twitter change the way we live in our cities, how we call for help in an emergency, or even help rally a group to topple the city's government? Or is it a frivolous technology that simply atomizes our thoughts and relationships into 140-character bits?

In order for Twitter to impact a local area, it must have some sort of geographic search. Unlike the now-defunct Twitter-like service Dodgeball (which notified your friends if they were physically nearby), Twitter itself has no geographic index save self-reported locations in user profiles. However, users got around that through a number of third party applications. The just-launched Localtweeps.com looks to be the most promising geographic directory of Twitter users yet.

Of course, just because it wasn't designed to support local communities didn't mean it hasn't been used that way. As an example of what we should perhaps call a placetweeter, 02138now ("Harvard Square Now!") has issued 1,284 updates, generally retweets from other members, about goings on in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Any incident involving police or other emergency responders sparks a flurry of tweets reporting speculated or actual causes.

Groups of friends already living in proximity logically use Twitter to stay in touch, so much so that after a mugging an acquaintance of mine who lives in Washington, D.C. used Twitter to ask for help. Three friends dialed 911 for her. Nevertheless, in response to a blog post on the incident the tweet author writes, "you're obviously welcome to have any opinion you like, but it's also not something I sat down and logically plotted out, I was running inside in a panic, and I did what I did. I wouldn't take it as some thesis I wrote on the amazing uses of twitter."

Beyond the subtle influence on urban community life, could Twitter have much more obvious impacts on the way we live in cities? Fellow Planetizen blogger Anthony Townsend reports of a Twitter application helping hungry New Yorkers keep tabs on the notoriously long line at a popular burger stand. On a more ominous note, according to today's New York Times, social media like Twitter and Facebook played some role in rallying an unexpectedly large crowd for a anti-government protest that turned violent in Moldova.

Of course, Twitter could change policy through the more sedate and conventional channel of urban plan making. The regional planning agency the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has set up a Twitter feed to solicit input as part of their Go To 2040 planning initiative, posting tweets on topics like U.S. Census data and federal earmarks affecting Chicago.

I'm not sure what these loosely connected items amount to. Maybe we can discuss it via Twitter at the upcoming American Planning Association conference. How does #apa09 sound for the event hashtag?

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