At ConConUk, Will Davies gave a short commentary of his ‘Software for Skyscrapers’ presentation from this year’s ETCON. The presentation looks at how social software might help residents in Skyhouse – a new residential tower block proposed by London Eye designers Marks Barfield. Davies and co-author James Crabtree set themselves an interesting problem – how could social software help increase social capital amongst a community who share nothing except an entrance hall? In their analysis, most ‘generic’ social software creates bottom-up communities around shared interests, whereas social software for skyscrapers would need to create top-down motivations for shared responsibilities.
The presentation defines three levels of social interaction, and explores whether social software could help each one. The first is infrastructure – admin blogs could help communicate to residents about maintenance to the building, but could lead to a culture of complaint (“when is the bloody lift going to get cleaned?”). The last is culture – the holy grail of a community, where individuals feel strong levels of identification with both place and people. These kind of strong linkages run the risk of becoming accelerated into ‘cliques’ through social software, a result familiar to many mailing list or message board owner.
The middle level – tasks – is identified as the most promising for social software. Tasks are exchanges that lend themselves to taxonomies and economies of exchange – squash leagues and babysitter recommendations are given as examples of how communities confer trust or expertise based on real face-to-face exchanges. Like ebay’s recommendations ratings, defined tasks are a good basis for representing trust, as the ability to ‘rate’ others is dependent on some form of actual exchange, limiting the scope for ‘gaming’ the system in the ways so familiar to purely virtual communities. Top-down intermediaries can help to confer trust by establishing the rules of exchange, then representing the community back to itself according to these rules – a feedback mechanism that could increase face-to-face exchanges across the community.
Whilst this is an intelligent and well-argued proposal, I couldn’t help thinking that something had been missed out. At ConConUk, I asked if the type of community they were adressing – a diverse group with little in common except physical proximity – could not be compared to offices, where there are similar issues about motivation and community? Could they not learn as much from Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange as we could from Friendster and Meetup.com?
When I thought about it again a few days later, I remembered the tenantspin project that has been running for the last three years in Liverpool. Started by FACT’s innovative collaboration programme and Liverpool Housing Action Trust, Tenantspin is a web-tv channel set up by residents of Coronation House, one of Liverpool’s oldest high-rise blocks. I was in Liverpool as part of an Arts Council panel appraising FACT’s activities two weeks ago, and we got a chance to meet up with some of the residents who have been working on tenantspin over the last few years. Most of the participants are over 50, and few of them had any experience of using technology before they joined the project. FACT teaches them to use cameras, sound equipment and RealProducer, then provides the infrastructure for the production and transmission of their programmes.
Over the last three years, they have produced over 200 shows, including interviews with Margi Clarke, Lord Puttnam, Bill Drummond and Will Self. But the residents were quick to point out how Tenantspin had helped them explore issues relating to their building and city, as well as entertainment. Recent webcasts include a debate with Liverpool Echo journalists about Liverpool’s City of Culture bid, and the live streaming of a Tenant Liason meeting. Asked about their motivations for participating, the tenants said they were all curious about media technology, but also had found their outlooks changes by their acqured knowledge – many of them said they viewed mainstream print and broadcast media very differently now they appreciated the mechanics of framing and editing. They often use tenantspin as a way to further explore the sensational headlines of the Liverpool Echo (who they thought were far too quick to criticise their city) or to get a local perspective on a national news item such as asylum seekers.
Tenantspin is a far more haphazard and bottom-up project that Davies & Crabtree’s Skyhouse proposal, but comes with the added bonus of increasing media literacy as well as creating social capital. By providing access to tools of production and distribution as well as participation, tenantspin lets the means find their own ends, rather than predicting desired outcomes and then finding the tools to achieve them.
If Skyhouse is to succeed in building social capital, it might want to learn a few things from Tenantspin, namely that self-expression is about more than just listing transactions or tasks, unless you believe that Ebay is an adequate model for all social exchanges. Culture might not be perfectly expressed through social software, just as it is equally ill-served by broadcast media, but in both cases teaching people how these networks actually work is just as vital as teaching them how to consume their products. In a mediated society, ‘media literacy’ and ‘social capital’ are ideas that are unavoidably linked. ‘Top-down’ solutions that seek to create one without supporting the other are as doomed to failure as the hard concrete architectures of 1960’s tower blocks.