Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Web is to Cities What Apple is to Suburbia

I love the Sunday NY Times, not only for my "me" time with a good cup of coffee and some fine writers who make me think, but also for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. Today's Magazine did not disappoint, and Virginia Heffernan's feature, "The Medium" drew some thoughtful and thought-provoking parallels between the Web and cities, and Apple and suburbia. Given that much of my life right now is devoted to how people live, what they care about in communities, and working with teams to build these communities, AND yes I am an Apple devotee - this was a must read.

Here's the link for those whose attention in piqued:

The basic gist is the "open" Web is like urban centers, full of the unexpected, the gritty, the sometimes not clean sides of life, and with the advent of the iPhone and now the iPad, Apple is enabling Web users to avoid the urban decay of the big wide open Web and head to the suburbs. The App store lets users self-select their experience, behind walled gardens of better developed "user experiences" where everything is neat, cute and orderly.

Her overall premise? The Web is being "stratified" with pay walls, subscription access and privacy settings and other ways of controlling the experience. This makes users feel safe. The parallel she draws (though not totally stated overtly) is that suburbia is one of society's physically stratified places. Safe, clean and away from what many consider the decay of inner city urban living. Life is never this black and white for sure, but it's an interesting metaphor.

She says 50 million people are on their way to quitting the open Web entirely (the current number of iPhone and iPad users), and warns: "By choosing machines that come to life only when tricked out with Apps from the App Store, users of Apple's radical mobile devices increasingly commit themselves to a more remote and inevitably antagonistic relationship with the Web."

Now, were creating communities NOT my business I hope I would still see this metaphorical stretch a little fatalistic! The parallel here is of course that people who choose to live in the suburbs are committing themselves to an inevitably antagonistic relationship with urban life, or that their suburban life comes alive only when "tricked" by the creations of suburbia - private amenities, walled access, and god forbid a gate to keep out interlopers! I'm probably carrying the link too far (let's hope!) but what I see in suburbia all over the country is new models of community, new styles of home product, and shifts in demographic and lifestyle characteristics of the people who are moving there. It's no longer the traditional families who live here (where "family" means you must have children) and where mom stays home and everyone lives in a single-family house with the garage out front.

Suburban living today is every kind of family you can imagine, and more new ones being created each day. And it's more and more about every kind of home product too, smaller homes, attached homes, townhomes, walk ups, live/work homes, and homes where multiple generations live together. Just like in cities. All these shifts and many more to come are forever changing the character of suburban living.

So maybe the real take away is that the proliferation and accessibility of Apps from the App Store and the growing stratification of the Web will simply be another additive alternative to our online world. Stratification, doesn't always have to divide - sometimes it just gives people more choice and ways to stay in control of their own reality. City or suburban dweller, open Web user or iPhone browser, I am pretty certain that's a desire we all share.

Anyway, it's a great read - she made me think.