Internet gated communities spring up; 'Webtropolis is being stratified': Fair analogy?

Is the growth of the Web similar to that of a large, out-of-control city? Are people fleeing to 'suburbs' and online gated communities?

Is the growth of the Web similar to that of a large, out-of-control city, with a growing exodus to  the suburbs? Excerpt of an essay, "The Death of the Open Web," by Virginia Heffernan, in the New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2010:

"The Web is a teeming commercial city. It’s haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed, and signs of urban decay abound in broken links and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies and hucksters roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble seems to dominate major sites.

"People who find the Web distasteful — ugly, uncivilized — have nonetheless been forced to live there: it’s the place to go for jobs, resources, services, social life, the future.

"But now, with the purchase of an iPhone or an iPad, there’s a way out, an orderly suburb that lets you sample the Web’s opportunities without having to mix with the riffraff. This suburb is defined by apps from the glittering App Store: neat, cute homes far from the Web city center, out in pristine Applecrest Estates.

"In the migration of dissenters from the 'open' Web to pricey and secluded apps, we’re witnessing urban decentralization, suburbanization and the online equivalent of white flight.... ...a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access...."

JM: Heffernan draws interesting parallels between the problems of large American cities and the Web, parallels that make an important point. There definitely is the crime and grime to contend with. But Heffernan goes a bit too far in the analogy. As we see in cities, there are strong communities that have formed across the Web. But these communities are fluid. The Web is a constantly evolving, shifting environment that won't leave people "trapped" in distressed neighborhoods.

But we won't see the loyalty, identity and sense of place with Websites that is the essence that treasures, preserves and restores physical neighborhoods. Look what often happens if the city says houses need to be knocked down for a new freeway. Don't expect to see a "Save Facebook" movement erupt if the social media company ever had to fold its doors -- people will just move on to other venues without a second thought. (Though Facebook itself has served as a platform for rallying campaigns.)

And environments such as the iPad/iPhone App Store are relatively accessible to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, age, or income bracket -- unlike more exclusive leafy suburbs with sky-high housing prices and over-dependence on automobiles.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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