Widespread use of mobile and ubiquitous information and communications technology by urban dwellers remains in stark contrast to endemic forms of urban alienation - and the disappearance or non-existence of urban neighbourhood community identity.
In today’s networked society, e-mail, instant messaging, online chats and other applications are instrumental in establishing and maintaining social ties, so creating what Manuel Castells calls a private “portfolio of sociability”.
Neighbours may still be part of a resident’s social portfolio, but the communication devices used to maintain social ties are inherently place-independent and ephemeral. Getting to know someone in their role as a neighbour is less likely than getting to know them in their role as a co-worker or being the friend of a friend.
Sociologists such as Barry Wellman describe how people construct their social networks with the help of new media tools.
Wellman argues that while people become more accustomed with the features these tools offer, the nature of the social ties people establish and maintain is changing. What used to be door-to-door and place-to-place relationships are now person-to-person and role-to-role relationships. Wellman terms the emerging qualities of this behaviour “networked individualism”.
Paul DiMaggio and others (pdf file 240KB) review previous studies that tried to make sense of new media usage. Some of them rely on simple binary oppositions such as individual v community, physical place v cyberspace or online v offline.
Departing from this approach requires a holistic theoretical framework that builds on the dual nature of the community and the individual inherent in networked individualism.
For example, Richard Florida argues that place-based units such as home, work and school remain at the core of our understanding of everyday life, even as the Internet grows exponentially. He also says “the economy itself increasingly takes form around real concentrations of people in real places”.
According to Castells, human interaction thus takes place seamlessly in the virtual and physical “space of flows” that modern transportation and modern communication afford.
Place and proximity continue to matter in every socio-economic aspect. This is evident, Wellman argues, by rising car and air travel sales, by people commuting to work instead of working from home, and by the formation of economic clusters, precincts and hot spots where industries based along the same value chain co-locate to take advantage of synergy effects.
However, researchers have yet to find an empirically proven rationale that clarifies the conditions under which these synergy effects apply in heterogeneous new residential urban developments.
Ethan Watters describes “urban tribes” - social clusters of under 35-year-old urban dwellers. They represent a social network - a swarming group of friends who live in the same city and are connected through a meshwork of strong and weak ties, and who supplement face-to-face interaction with new media and ICT applications.