The Real Social Life of Wireless Public Spaces

Bryant Park | Photo by Ed Yourdon

I feel compelled to respond to a recent article and photo essay (PDF) published by a group of communications scholars led by Keith Hampton. Hampton is best known for his doctoral research under Barry Wellman, in which he studied the impacts of broadband on a wired suburb of Toronto. His conclusion was that while broadband didn’t increase strong social ties, the use of email amongst neighbors did expand the circle of weak social ties for residents. Overall, the impacts of broadband on social cohesion were deemed modest but positive. In the decade since that study, we’ve seen a similar dynamic play out on online social networks like Facebook, which have greatly expanded our weak social ties.

So it was with great interest that I approached Hampton’s newest study of social behavior of users of wireless public spaces. In fact, I played a major role in lighting up two of the spaces examined in the study, Bryant Park and Union Square in New York City, and have been studying them myself for nearly a decade. The researchers collected an enormous amount of data, observing some 1,400 people using mobile wireless devices in these parks as well as three others in Philadelphia and Toronto. Their mixed conclusion: “We explored how wireless Internet access brings new uses and new life to public spaces‚ and how it pushes out existing public life. Some wireless users are cut off from their surroundings, but for most, interactions between on- and off-line experiences increase exposure to social diversity.” Not exactly an indictment, but not a ringing endorsement either. Given the attention that this study is likely to get, and the potential it may have to dampen interest in public wireless by civic leaders and park advocates, I wanted to point out a couple areas where this study failed to capture “the complex relationships between Internet use in urban public spaces” it sought to understand.

The first point to make is that Hampton isn’t the first to discover the risks of social isolation for and around wireless users in public space. Literally from the very first day in June 2002, when my colleagues at NYCwireless first fired up the free public wireless network in Bryant Park, we were on the lookout for negative impacts on the park’s public life. This is because we were working closely with the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, a sort of neighborhood level quasi-governmental body that was the brainchild of William “Holly” Whyte and the organizational mechanism for the park’s revitalization in the 1990s. During the project planning, we had discussed many times that the wireless network was a pilot project, and it was made clear in no uncertain terms that if nerds with laptops took over the park, they’d pull the plug. Of course, that didn’t happen — wireless use became a small niche within the rich ecosystem of uses of the park. Furthermore, NYCwireless actively sought to create mechanisms to “undo” social isolation and reconnect Internet users back to the park — a portal with park information had to be passed before gaining access to the Internet, and we created games and chatrooms that could only be accessed on the local area network. That is to say, we created web-based services that were only accessible if you came to the park.

The troubling part of the study is where it implies that by attracting non-sociable users to public space — in particular, workers seeking an “escape” from their office — wireless connectivity is reducing the vitality of those spaces. To me, having spent a decade working in wireless public spaces around the world, this is an incredibly archaic view of what public space is for, and it is one that conflicts with the long legacy of working in public space throughout urban history. Granted, as the study documents, today, many of those working in wireless public spaces are solitary. They found that  “Internet users rarely travel in packs: most come alone and stay alone (79 percent).” They describe the way in which Bryant Park, at certain times of the day, “functions primarily as a workers’ park” for wireless Internet users, who “typically seek empty tables and desks.”

Bryant Park | Photo by Ed Yourdon

Yet, why would we not expect Bryant Park to be primarily used for work? It is, after all, situated smack dab in the largest cluster of office buildings in the world. To think of it as some kind of bucolic retreat from the real Manhattan world of commerce is deluded at best, and destructive of the social fabric of the city, much of which is structured around work. More importantly, by making public space available for private work, we also create the opportunity for collaborative work. Laura Forlano has extensively documented the way that new forms of collaborative work are emerging in wireless public spaces such as cafes. My favorite anecdote tells of the graphic designer who leaves samples of work in progress out on display, in the hopes of soliciting casual comments from passersby. While intensely focused on his computer-based design software, he’s left a trigger for others to approach him. Other freelancers use stickers and buttons displayed on their computers to provide hooks for conversations. (Mine just says “I am making the future.”)

Thus, while Hampton’s study either misses or doesn’t address this phenomenon, it’s becoming clear that public wireless is allowing groups to work in public space in novel ways. And so, two years ago, working on one of five projects commissioned by the Architectural League of New York for its Toward the Sentient City exhibition, Forlano and I organized a series of experimental collaborative work sessions in wireless public spaces. Using a dedicated social app developed by NYCwireless’ Dana Speigel, and a backpack full of office supplies and work-facilitating doodads like a tabletop whiteboard assembled by Antonina Simeti of workplace design consultancy DEGW, we appropriated the parks and plazas of Manhattan for our work. Dubbed “Breakout: Escape from the Office,” this weeklong effort demonstrated that public space provides an ideal platform for the kind of creative, collaborative, cross-organizational work that so many companies now do. And it showed that the door is opening for us to bring work back to the streets for the first time in a century, since the office building, as architectural solution to bureaucracy — managing lots of people and paper in close proximity — sucked them away.

Finally, the study fails to address two rapidly emerging trends in mobile devices and information services that are changing the way wireless users interact with public space, and are likely to render many of the conclusions irrelevant in the near future. First, the most critical element of how online and face-to-face worlds now interact, is the widespread and diversifying use of social media and electronic communications to coordinate face-to-face meetings. “The more devices present, the less in-person interaction: the majority of public Internet users are online communicating with people they know, but who aren’t physically present.” That’s fine, but what are the consequences of those communications? Invariably, they are about planning activities that will take place in or around the park in the near future. Bryant Park receives hundreds of check-ins daily on the mobile social network Foursquare. Surely these people are creating opportunities for sociability even as they are momentarily distracted from their surroundings while leaving a digital breadcrumb. Second, the study places far too much emphasis on personal devices, especially the laptop. But laptops are already on their way out, as we enter what urban informatician Adam Greenfield first called the “post-PC era.” As tablets, game consoles and gestural and spoken interfaces to computers become more widespread, we’ll see wireless public spaces become laboratories for a kind of civic computing that lets groups large and small experience new kinds of collective computed activities.

In conclusion, while Hampton’s study of wireless public space takes great effort to be neutral and objective, its conclusions are already outdated. And I fear the nuances of its mixed conclusions will be lost on the practitioners who manage our public spaces, or, even worse, interpreted as a warning. But this great experiment with mobile connectivity in civic spaces is just getting started. We shouldn’t be so hasty to draw conclusions about its larger social impact. From an urban design standpoint, the opportunity to bring work back out of office buildings far exceeds the risks. That’s exactly why Bryant Park put the lectern desks in the park: to encourage that new and highly desirable use for a park in a business district.

And yes, I wrote this in Bryant Park, while still managing to chitchat here and there, and flirt with a girl or two. I like to think that wherever he is, Holly Whyte is looking down and smiling.

Bryant Park | Photo by Ed Yourdon

All photos of Bryant Park visitors enjoying wireless by Ed Yourdon.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Anthony Townsend is the Director of Technology and Development of the Institute for the Future, and focuses his research on the impact of new technology on cities and public institutions. His interests span several inter-related topics: mobility and urbanization, innovation systems and innovation strategy, science and technology parks and economic development, and sustainability and telework.  

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Sheryl July 18, 2011

As someone who has worked in public and “third” spaces since long before PCs, I see what is happening as a natural transition from the days of sitting in the park during lunch or an office break and reading a book or a newspaper. Most 20 and 30 somethings do not read newspapers or books in hard copy anymore. Whether they are working or spending solitary leisure time in the park, they are merely doing what their parents’ generation did, with the additional advantage of being able to work and be in touch with colleagues and friends at a location or their choosing – meaning not in the office or a phone booth.

Marc July 27, 2011

I’m curious to hear what you think the impact will be as more and more wireless devices don’t need to rely on WiFi for internet service. Imagine a few years from now when all laptops and tablets can get internet service over the cell network like smartphones so that you can get online in any public space, not just places like Bryant Park.