A Twitter in the City

Robert Goodspeed's picture

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?

Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.



Tweeting from planning workshops

As communications director (and not a planner), I manage the Twitter account @WSUSpokane for my campus, Washington State University Spokane. I put out a mix of links to news releases, event invitations, and general "what it's like on campus today."

Twitter reliably brings click-throughs to destination links, such as news releases and the summary page of information on the campus master plan update currently under way. We also have followers from local media who have retweeted items, making it another way of reaching both them and their followers.

Recently I live tweeted from our first master plan public workshop. A colleague at another campus told me the tweets gave her a much richer understanding of what's happening at WSU Spokane and what the opportunities are as we build a health sciences-focused campus.

Keeping a sense of the actual content as it moves ahead, while composing a reasonably coherent and meaningful 140-character bit of what was just said, is not for the slow-thumbed. But where you have some local following, as we do on our account, it might provide an effective avenue to give people a taste of planning that may bring them in the door for the full meal deal.

I'd also add that even if you're not using Twitter, you should be searching it and other social media spaces to find references to your planning activities. I manage a couple of other accounts for volunteer organizations with which I'm involved. If there are public hearings or any other kind of information in those policy spaces locally, I'm tweeting on them.

Direct Twitter search and some Google alerts, set up as an RSS feed to make it easier to scan, will get you started. If you're on a high-profile project you should also check Facebook to see if someone has created the "I Hate Your Big Planning Idea" page or group, how many members it has, and how active it is.

You'll find out which individuals and organizations are talking about you, if not with you. If those spaces are particularly active, it suggests you should engage in the conversation.

@BarbChamberlain (personal account)
Accounts I manage:

Urban hashtag conversations

Great summary, I'm very interested to see what these items will add up to! The example you provide about the placetweeter is really interesting. We've recently been thinking a lot about how hashtags could become a local communication channel that is place-based, just like the conference hashtags. What about a backchannel for urban parks, along the lines of "Hey we're still looking for folks to play volleyball, meet us at the NE end of the park" or similar conversations that are currently barely possible? Since 95% of Americans are not on Twitter, we would need a way to expand the use of hashtags, maybe with text messages or the mobile web. And points-of-entry are an issue, so signage, stickers, etc. need to be in place to access the conversation on-site.
We've started to explore these options with a prototype at http://GuerrillaTweets.com. I'd be interested to hear any feedback.

Chris Haller

Blog - http://eParticipation.com
Twitter - http://Twitter.com/challer

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