Getting What You Design For

John Norquist, President of the Congress for New Urbanism had an insightful observation in his recent interview with Streetsblog, where he simultaneously debunked a common myth about the effectiveness of expanding highways to fight traffic congestion while vividly illustrating the impacts of those choices.

You can of course defeat congestion. Environmentalists sometimes say that you can’t build your way out of congestion; that’s not true. It’s been done in Detroit, they built their way out of congestion. They built all these freeways all over Detroit and congestion is now probably their lowest priority problem. They have a lot of other problems, like they lost more than half their population, most of the jobs, the real estate values collapsed. They tore down all the streetcars by 1956 and built these freeways all over the city. So it does work, if the only priority you have is reducing congestion, you can do it by building these giant roads across cities. But then it’ll hurt the city in every other way and they hurt the national economy too, because your cities are what really drive value.

As anybody who’s read The Power Broker can tell you, the impacts of these kinds of choices are not always obvious at the time when they’re made.

What I wish I could find is as thoughtful an analysis of our choices in online communities. We don’t yet have a Jane Jacobs for those who build social websites and communities online. And we continue expanding our networks without perhaps enough information about the implications of all of these choices. The other day, Baratunde caught me saying “we are influencing culture when we think we’re just making feature decisions“.

And it goes way beyond just features and technologies — the very platforms we build on have some assumptions built into them. We don’t always think about the implications of the choices we make when we build a social website. Hell, we don’t even always think about them when we take a social site offline. Even fewer of us regularly write about the social responsibilities that come with making online communities.

We make feature lists that don’t ever mention what impact the use of those features will have on the healthiness of our online communities. But we could do that, couldn’t we?