The real world city is a hub of human activity. Indeed, there exists no other place in the world where people coexist in greater density than in the city. But what is a city? Milgram's city is a social one, and perhaps this is the most pertinent for us as we look at virtual worlds: "The city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of city life." Jacobs and Appleyard suggest a model city that has a high density of people, a woven, interspersed pattern of commercial and residential areas, and an accessible environment. However, for each of these qualities, there exist exceptions to the rule that we would still consider "cities". This word that sums up so much in the end really represents an idea, a concept. We can imagine, in the urban books Pike discusses and in many movies and images, cities that do not, and cannot, exist in the real world.

The qualities that make up the city in the real world take on new meanings when trying to use the metaphor of the city to envision the online world. For instance, it makes no sense to talk of density of living spaces when space itself is limitless and purely conceptual as it is online. Yet we do perceive a differing densities of people when we think of different online areas. For example, we may think of the space of GeoCities as very populated spaces, whereas or view of a place such as is eerily vacant, though visually the latter resembles a real "world" while the former is an amorphous, abstract, non-spacial place.

There are particular features of a city that create its unique social atmosphere. There is a high density of people, such that you cannot exists or move about the city without at least seeing other people, and existing without interacting is very difficult in such a populated place. There are hubs of activity, multiple city centers, each of which supports at least one demographic of person. There is an integration of function, such that living and working areas exist symbiotically, though not necessarily uniformly distributed throughout the cityspace as a whole. There is culture, particularly high culture, such that working and socializing are interwoven, and the city supports the pursuit of many different forms of entertainment and leisure activities that a smaller population spread over a larger area would be unable to justify or support.

In many ways, these are qualities of the online world as well, and so the comparison of real world city to online world make sense, up to a point. The online world has a terrific density of people, fragmented over many different boundaries--this may require a view of the online world as a set of cities as opposed to one, although this notion breaks down because of a lack of physical constraints on existence in more than one community at once. There are communities and community centers, which support both residential spaces, in the form of personal home pages, and commercial spaces, through ecommerce and advertisements. The integration of living and working environments exists as a blurring of the basic notions of living and working on the net. Culture exists almost everywhere online (though with an decreased barrier to entry also comes a decrease in the consistency of such things as art). Almost entirely, the internet as well as the city, is founded upon the interaction of people.

Whyte, in his seminal work "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces", discusses those qualities of urban spaces that are conducive to social interaction and crowd formation. One of his most important aphorisms is that people like to be where other people are. This idea explains why people stand in the most crowded parts of the sidewalk, or tend to form tightly packed clumps in an otherwise spacious areas. This phenomenon can also be seen online in chat environments. On IRC, there are many lurkers, who just listen in on the conversation in much the same way that a public space in the city might have people-watchers. Indeed, since paying attention to the conversation in IRC requires a certain amount of attention, it is likely that most of the lurkers are merely logged on and not paying attention to the activity on the channel, so that they can maintain a connection to a populated place. Channels with only a handful of people are rare, and people who enter a channel with little activity are more likely to leave and find a more populated space than to stay and try to start up a conversation or wait for something to happen. In many ways, people's social behavior in a city is mimicked online.

There are problems with using the metaphor of a real world city to understand the online world. There is no spaciality, and while there are places online that try to force a kind of spaciality, in the end this molding is artificial. The best maps of the online world are those that are abstract, and even then have only limited navigational value. People have very fuzzy mental maps of their online travels or environments (if they have them at all), and even in cases such as MUDs or graphical chats, which try to construct online spaces paralleling real world ones, people have trouble navigating the superstructure of the place because they don't have a good understanding of its arrangement. Perhaps this is the wrong way to go about visualizing the online world: we can warp from one place to another instantly, there can be an infinite amount of people and things in any given space, and people can be in many places at once.

The particulars of how the online world is architected, or more accurately how it has grown, suggest that for spatial metaphor, the suburb might be a more accurate depiction. As integrated as the online world is, there is a clear distinction between commerce space and residential space. There are perhaps small businesses that locate themselves within large areas of personal home pages, but by and large commercial areas on the net are separate places that people leave their home spaces to get to, both for shopping and for working, as cities are places of commerce to which suburbanites commute. There is heavy branding online, and a small set of large merchants dominate the online world and provide a sort of shopping mall approach to offering their goods. Most groups of people online are heterogeneous: hackers hang out with hackers, expecting mothers with other expecting mothers, and so on, much in the same way that suburbs tend to attract people who are members of their existing demographic. Transportation was the enabling technology that allowed people to move out of the city (and its slums) and into the suburbs that sprang up in the 20's in the Boston area and popularized in the 1960's. Transportation has never really been a problem online, so there was no need for cities to grow as they have in the real world.

page last updated 3/27/2001