Txt and the city

This is a commissioned article I wrote a few months ago for Canvas8 about the role of technologies in urban culture and its implications for brands. It is republished here with kind permission.


Txt and the city
Michiel de Lange



Today’s cities are pervaded by a variety of visible and invisible media technologies, like mobile devices, rfid chips, wireless networks, GPS positioning, urban screens, media facades, sensors, CCTV cameras, and so on. The boundaries between distinct urban domains like work, home, travel, meeting, leisure become less clear. Social behaviour previously confined to one sphere is blurring. People are using social networks like Facebook or Twitter at work, receive work-related calls at home or during travel, listen to music or keep their eyes fixed on the mobile screen in public places, and so on. What does that mean for people’s behaviour in the media city? And what are the implications for brands?

Sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that people in public situations engage in ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1959). They play varying roles in different situations to convey particular impressions (caring father at home, cheerful colleague at work, successful businessman in public, generous mate in the pub). This situation-dependent behaviour functions as a membrane of the self. In its porous state the membrane allows the self to diffuse and encounter new places, connect to other people and express self-identity. In its solid state it acts as a safety shield to protect the self from leaking too much personal information and to block an overload of outside information.

Goffman’s view underlines that for communication to be perceived as genuine is less about facts than about effects: does it work? Credible communication is not simply an action but an interaction that involves the audience as much as the actor. Blurring social roles are both liberating and challenging. On the one hand people have to be less worried about conforming to restricting etiquettes and social expectations. On the other hand they need to manage their selves on multiple online and offline stages simultaneously without having a clear view of who exactly their audiences are. How can brands enable people to navigate the complexities of this shifting urban landscape?


The search for relevance

For brands, the blurring of situations and roles means that it is more difficult to communicate by simply associating their products with clearly legible settings. As situations and social roles become more fluid the notion of ‘relevance’, which is always contextually defined, changes too. Urban apps are a response to the ongoing quest for relevance. Sensing apps and location-based services measure and visualise data and tie that information to places. These services are touted as allowing people to make situation-specific optimal choices. Where are places of interest nearby? Who recommends this restaurant? Where are my friends now? Is the air clean enough to go out? Is the traffic not too dense? Have I burned my 2500 calories today? What about the crime rate in my new neighbourhood?

The problem however with many mobile services is that they are designed for location-based relevance rather than social relevance. Even though these apps augment physical place with digital information, they limit and pre-script the roles for people to play. Way-finding and location-based services, digital signage, customer loyalty cards, and individualised search algorithms stimulate a culture of personalised consumption. Mobile screens, portable audio devices, and untethered access to one’s familiar inner circle enable people to retreat from public life into privatised capsules. Recommendations favour sameness instead of difference and induce people to dwell in the known instead of stimulating serendipitous encounters. By making the city smaller and more predictable, urban apps limit the bandwidth for behaviour to consumption and cocooning. Solidification of the social membrane – a ‘filter bubble’ – is neither good for lively cities that thrive on diversity, nor for brands that thrive on diversification and diffusion.


New tech, new social roles

Luckily, these same technologies also contribute to the emergence of new roles for people. With mobile media citizens start to take the organisation and design of their cities in their own hands. Key is that apps are designed to grant people ownership over urban issues (“this is my problem too”) and a high degree of agency (“I can do something about it”).

A first step is when people acquire new insights in urban issues. An example is the Trash | Track project by MIT’s Senseable City Lab. Location-aware rfid tags were attached to items people wanted to discard. At various stages the trash was tracked and its route, which in some cases spanned across the USA, visualised. By using pervasive technologies the project attempted to take a bottom-up approach to urban resource management and promote recycling as a behavioural change.

A step higher on the ladder of involvement is when citizens actively contribute to help solve collective issues with easily available technologies. Crowdsourcing and citizen science are terms often used for this type of distributed participation. In Boston for example citizens can help to map street bumps with a specially developed mobile app and contribute to improving road conditions. Citizens in this case have a signalling role, while fixing the street is left to the responsible authorities.

Another step up is when citizens become true co-creators. In the Dutch project Face Your World by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and architect Dennis Kaspori, young people adopted the role of urban designers and collaborated on a plan for a park in their neighbourhood. Simulation software allowed them to contribute ideas and deliberate over design choices. Local government was persuaded to abandon initial master planning for the park and execute the bottom-up plan instead.

Finally, people who participate in media art projects or urban games often invert or transgress scripted ‘normal’ behaviour, and engage with people and places in unexpected ways. Koppelkiek is a social game made by game developer Kars Alfrink that was played in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Players earned points by making pictures of oneself together with someone else in a specific physical situation, for instance together with a number. Opposite to the ‘gamification’ of individual achievements, this game was explicitly designed to reward playful social interactions.


Insights and opportunities

Everybody is a stakeholder in liveable and lively cities, including brands. In the cases above technologies are used to make cities more lively and social instead of only more personalised and efficient. Urbanites take on roles that are all about forging renewed relations with the environment, other people, and ultimately with the self. Following the logic of digital media as relational tools for more social cities, businesses that enable people to establish and maintain relations are in a privileged position. This is what market researcher Cova calls the ‘linking value’ of products and services (Cova, 1997).

By becoming actors in this field brands can contribute to a diversity of social roles and interactions in today’s media cities. That means doing credible impression management. There is nothing inauthentic about that. Everybody does. Through social interactions effects occur that are genuine. Real relations are not one-way but reciprocal. One gives and one receives. So if governments open up their data to become collective resources, why can’t brands do the same? Think Google’s Trends and Zeitgeist. Sure, public and private organisations have different aims. Yet there is a clear parallel with Goffman’s impression management, where an overly protective attitude toward private information signals that someone likes to keep the membrane closed. By contrast, opening the membrane by sharing private information invites new connections and makes existing ones deeper and longer-lasting.

Brands can also enable people to act on collective issues. They can help people to identify important issues. They can put in their weight to involve other institutional stakeholders. People should be allowed to not only contribute ideas (like the Philips + challenge in Indonesia) but to make actual decisions about their urban environment and co-create. Further, brands can give people experiences to share and stories to tell. Narratives act as blueprints for identity construction, and in turn people tell who they are through stories. A wide variety of available stories thus strengthens diversity. Brands can also stimulate chance encounters with unknown people and places. This can be elicited by play in the true sense, i.e. done for its own sake rather than extrinsically rewarded. Finally, brands can think of alternative measures of economic value. Local currencies and collaborative consumption turn transactions from impersonal one-time only events into durable and reciprocal interactions.

Why should brands? Well, it’s good for cities. If we think of cities as complex ecosystems, more behavioural variation means more capacity for adaptation and innovative approaches to existing and future problems. It’s also good for profit. Diverse cities are places that catalyse a variety of interlocking and mutually reinforcing processes. Such cities attract creative people, foster creativity and innovation, generate cultural liveliness, increase demand for high-value products and services, educate citizens, and breed out-of-the-box innovators, who in turn design the products and services of tomorrow. Brands as much as anyone benefit from social cities.



Cova, B. (1997). Community and Consumption: towards a definition of the “linking value” of product or services. European Journal of Marketing, 31(3/4), 297-316.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

The article was originally published on Canvas8 here:

http://www.canvas8.com/content/2012/01/09/txt-in-the-city.html. Republished with kind permission.

Michiel de Lange

Michiel de Lange (1976) is an Assistant Professor in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, researching mobile media and urban culture and identity. He is the co-founder of The Mobile City, an independent research group founded in 2007 that investigates the influence of digital media technologies on urban life and the implications for urban design and policy. Michiel is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project (www.nomadicmilk.net). He worked for  Kennisland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds.
Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.