Bridging the Gap Between the Virtual World and Reality

A young artist in New Orleans launches a social experiment on the built environment, turning the walls of the city's buildings into a public forum.
June 24, 2012, 7am PDT | Emily Williams
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David Thier writes that since Hurricane Katrina that devastated the city of New Orleans, there has been a surge of creative individuals flocking to the area, eager to make a positive contribution to the city's recovery. Artist Candy Chang is one of these individuals. "Chang wanted a way to explore what recovery held for the fast-changing area, long an understated destination for bohos fast turning into a kind of lusher and drunker incarnation of Williamsburg. She thought she could find a way to project the desires of a shifting population on to the environment around her." She printed a stack of stickers to be placed on buildings with the statement "I Wish This Was _____" and distributed them all over the city, allowing the public to write in their own ideas for what they wish to see.

What began as an artistic experiment quickly became Neighborland, a national think-tank where community members can connect with one another and re-shape their environment together. Although the discussion has moved to the internet, it is only to better draw attention to what is happening in the real world. Thier writes, Neighborland "may have been born at a time defined by Facebook and Twitter, but it's going to have be something more than those in order to work. Facebook wants to bring offline connections online. Neighborland wants to bring online connections back into the offline world." Various other civic engagement websites have popped up after, and perhaps as a result of, Neighborland. Online forums such as PublicStuff connect needs and services, while NextDoor acts as a micro-Facebook for private networking among communities. Both are examples of an innovative online platform working to expand a community's real world social network.

The growing pains that Chang and the co-creators of Neighborland have to face as a result of going online is that of financial backing. "Neighborland is a more expensive proposition than most social media; it can't just expand to new cities without having a competent community manager on the ground, and that takes money. But where that money is going to come from is still up in the air. At present, the start-up is taking an approach similar to Twitter and YouTube: Worry about it later." As the enterprising organization continues to grow and expand its uses to smart phone apps and beyond, there will exist the ongoing challenge of managing and supporting social media as an extension of community organization in the material world.

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Published on Friday, June 15, 2012 in Next American City
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