Supporting the phases of digital urbanism
Digital spaces shift the way we meet and gather. Be prepared to support them in different ways.
Recently, I posted about a concept I call “digital urbanism.” It is the practice of combining digital infrastructure with social organizing. People use tools created by software engineers to organize, sometimes in unforeseen ways. It is important to make software that adapts to evolving conventions and culture.
Beyond the software itself, digital urbanism occurs in distinct phases. Two of them tie back to the physical world, while one of them is exclusively digital. Learning to work with these phases will make digital gathering a smoother experience.
An upload is when an in-person group, gathering, or organization interacts online. Uploads frequently involve permanent physical locations. In-person gatherings continue. The upload is a supplement to in-person interaction, not a replacement.
For instance, a church can create a Facebook group for socializing between services. Members of the church will still meet in person. The digital group then acts as a supplement. Members organize, collect prayer requests, and stay in touch throughout the week.
Uploads started happening in the late 90’s and continued with little fanfare. Then we saw a massive upload during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Everyone uploaded the vast majority of their interactions at once. Being forced to go remote during the pandemic in this giant upload was disruptive. The tools available at the time were unfamiliar to many. Since it happened overnight, it took tons of Internet bandwidth not normally available.
People started learning how to use backgrounds for their video chats. People also started to learn how exhausting it is to be on video for hours on end. Fatigue set in as people did not have typical in-person interactions accompanying uploads.
When they are not forced and prolonged, uploads are beneficial. Uploads become a supplement to things that are happening off-line already. You don’t have to wait until an in person meeting to decide details. You can use the uploaded digital space to coordinate and achieve tasks asynchronously. The bulk of the activity is still happening off-line, while the digital space acts as a supplement.
Cloud first is when people initially meet and organize online. There will not be a physical location, at least not at first. And there might never be a physical location. Cloud first spaces are crucial for groups that cannot easily meet in person.
For instance, you might have a group of LGBTQ+ Christians who are coming out of the closet for the first time. They want to find support and community. If you live in a small town, you may not have the resources to support an in person group like this. In fact, it might be dangerous for you to meet in person. For you, having a cloud first space to meet is not just a 21st century novelty: it is a lifeline.
Cloud first spaces are also useful for less critical situations. A group of people who are all interested in starting a company could be spread across timezones. Having a cloud first space can make it possible for them to create a startup.
Cloud first spaces are usually asynchronous by default. Chat and forum software will be the base of a cloud first space. Audio and video chat can be used to sync-up the async nature of a cloud first space.
It is possible for people to get to know each other through the cloud first space and never meet in person. While this may sound disappointing, there are benefits. Some people open up about themselves in a way they would not during an in-person conversation. While limiting, cloud first spaces create opportunities that would not have existed otherwise.
An exciting and underreported phenomenon is where a cloud first group gathers offline. This gathering is usually temporary, but sometimes it becomes permanent. This is a download.
The most common form of a download is when people from a cloud first group gather for a conference. Open-source software communities interact with each other online for most of the year. Conferences and meetup days allow them to finally spend time together in person. I have good memories of this. I would stay up way too late talking with people I had only interacted with online before.
A similar and growing trend is with remote companies having “off-sites.” Ironically, the name “off-site” is a holdover from office culture. Companies hold them to get their teams out of the office for a few days to have some social bonding.
Today, remote-first companies do the same thing. But nobody is coming from an office. There is still a lot of the same excitement around spending time with people you first met online.
And then sometimes a download is permanent. It happens when people who have met online want to spend more time together in person. This happens by establishing a physical location based on the cloud first one. This could look like an office, a venue, or even an intimate relationship!
Which phase is best?
At this point, you may be thinking that one of these phases of digital urbanism is superior. Or you might prefer one over the other two. But the truth is that they are all important.
An upload provides a convenient venue for tasks that can be accomplished asynchronously. A cloud first space enables discovery and organizing not otherwise possible. And a download will literally bring people closer together.
When you are building software, consider each of these phases. Think about how your software will be used and what people will need from it. The more flexible and accessible your software is, the more useful it will be in all situations.