Digital neighborhoods seem like a powerful tool for discussing technology and its impact on users (students, staff, researchers, etc) and the concept adds interesting new requirements to projects. Getting a good understanding of your users’ digital neighborhoods can guide design and deployment of new technologies and help predict impacts on the users themselves. Understanding how they move in their neighborhood, where they travel frequently and what places are stable over time, provides insight into the key places you should try to place application.
I came upon Jeff Swain via Twitter which led me to his blog-post about his digital neighborhood. I was wandering in my digital neighborhood and into the surrounding areas when I found his link. Jeff talks about reading David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined. To quote Jeff’s post:
As Weinberger points out space on the web doesn’t work that way. Distance is measured in hyperlinks and proximity is created by interest. In other words, each of us gets to create own own space on the web. Your own neighborhood, if you will, filled with the places you find interesting…. So this got me to thinking, What does my digital neighborhood look like? What seemingly disparate places are loosely joined (pun intended) just because I happen to be interested in them?
Jeff then goes on to do an analysis of his digital neighborhood.
As I read Jeff’s piece, I began to think about the value of understanding digital neighborhoods. If we understood our incoming students’ digital neighborhoods, it would give us a better understanding of how to reach them, what their interests are and places that we should think about pushing content into. One example that we have in place is in Facebook. We now have an emergency notification group and system in place in Facebook. Our leadership can push out notices via Facebook, into the user’s neighborhood.
Another example is our increasing use of RSS feeds for various applications and calendar feeds. This lets users pick up the content and move it to their own neighborhood. I have a calendar feed for our corporate calendar system integrated into my Google homepage. I can check my work calendar while checking personal email, local news and recording my workouts. The fact that my calendar appears among my personal tools means I track changes to my calendar much more closely when I’m at home doing my personal things. In some ways, Google’s custom homepage is like strip-mall with a few anchor stores (Mail, Calendar, Google Apps) and a lot of empty store fronts that you can fill with your own shops.
The value of these virtual malls, is that users can aggregate enough of their own personal content and applications that it makes it worth the trip. Every time you go on the web, you have thousands of possible places you could visit. Yet, you visit a select few. If we continue with the physical store/neighborhood metaphor: Every time you go shopping, you could go to any store in town but you go to a select neighborhood (like our State Street) because of the variety of interesting shops or to a given store because of the shop has some unique value (low price, selection, the one thing you can only find at their store). A similar thing happens when we deploy applications. Users are expected to visit that application because of the unique value it brings. When we bring up applications that are separated from their current digital neighborhood, it is like building your store in a new mall well out of town. The users have to have some reason to visit. The value has to be higher than an application built in their neighborhood or built such that it can easily be included.
This suggests to me at least, that we need to think about our users’ current digital neighborhoods and how we can integrate our new applications and services into those neighborhoods. RSS feeds are a low risk and fairly simple way to move content into their neighborhoods. Facebook groups and applications could reach into the students’ world. Portlet type applications that can be put into existing enterprise portals or into sites like Google’s homepage allow richer interaction. Finally, if if has to stand on its own, it better have unique value that makes it worth the trip.