‘I retweet your post’ - what does my action mean to you, me or others now or in the future?
In this post, I continue to explore the idea of digital placemaking, what it means and why it is helpful for thinking about digital and blended learning spaces.
Let’s start with ephemera.
Ephemera is anything that is short-lived. Digital ephemera is an odd idea therefore because digital artefacts persist. But the idea of digital ephemera points to our experience of a digital context as represented by artefacts we may have encountered, made or changed during some online activity, e.g. a ‘like’ or a comment on a video. This apparent contradiction between the persistent artefact and the transient but significant experience of the artefact, is a useful way for us to unravel what digital placemaking means.
Now let’s look at the difference between space and place: simply, space is conceptual and place is lived (Lefebvre, 1974/1991). A space is designed, planned for, constructed and only later does it reflect the people who, one way or another, encounter, inhabit, or pass through it. While architects are often the people for making space, it is others who move the furniture, change the pictures, chip the paintwork, make the noise and, by doing so, create a sense of place with each other.
A place, therefore, is about what happens or has happened, not what was ordained to happen in an abstract sense. A place is full of life or, at least, it has been full of life.
A place, therefore, is about what happens or has happened, not what was ordained to happen in an abstract sense.
For the moment let’s just say that if place is about life and experience, it is also about signs of life, experience, being, belonging, and becoming. And it is about the imagined potential for these experiences by would-be inhabitants or users. This echoes the “interconnected themes of place identity, attachment, and sense of community” noted by O’Rourke and Baldwin (2016, p.103).
Until now I have described place mostly in terms of that which matters to an individual; however, the social dimension, if not necessary, is usually important in discussions of place. Oldenburg’s ‘great good place’ (1989) is about the understated places that matter where people hang out. This idea of hanging out is important to learning spaces and non-formal learning, on and offline (Bilandzic & Foth, 2017) and it begins to explain why digital placemaking matters to us in education. I’ll pick up on places to hangout again in a minute.
This is where I begin to diverge from some understandings of place and placemaking. Or rather, this is where my emphasis of what is important about placemaking is different to what others say.
Wyckoff (2014) describes placemaking as “the process of creating Quality Places that people want to live, work, play and learn in.” In this urban designer-centred view, there are four meanings given to placemaking (roughly, ‘targeted development’, shaping the character of a place, tactical urbanism, and ‘Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” (LQC)’. While not dismissing these out of hand, they are all strategies to socially engineer a space so that it is conducive to being lived in, i.e. they are essentially conceptual approaches to placemaking in which experts, one way or another, create, shape or foster space so that it is accepted.
In contrast, we can consider networked spaces as being vibrant and dynamic and as places in which we all have agency. This leads us to a different conceptualisation of place and how it acquires meaning, association and identity.
The point is…
Digital placemaking is what we do in a digital context that affects our spatial experience, or that of others we know or don’t know, now or in the future, e.g. ‘I retweet your post’ – what does my action mean to you, me or others now or in the future?
It is the intended or unintended building of memories or the making of marks in the process of learning in a digital context which acquire and convey meaning, e.g. We collaborated to produce a report together. You found a supporting quote, while I found a graphic that represented our joint conclusion. How do we remember and value that experience?
It is evident that we, or others, were ‘here’ and that ‘being here’ mattered to us or others, e.g. You shared an article you came across and my Paper.li account scraped it and re-presented it for others.
It is about mattering (acts that end up being important) and significance. There is always the potential that what we do may matter to others, even though we may never know this. And that probably doesn’t matter. Hence, digital placemaking can also be understood as unconscious digital altruism or selflessness.
Places to hangout
Coming back to the idea of places to hangout, we immediately make connections to social media, and to pubs, and to spaces that matter to us in small social groupings, but are otherwise inconsequential or non-critical to the world at large. Place is personal and social therefore and is an outcome of our ‘being’. Most of us will recognise the importance of social space that reflects us, reminding us of who we are and who we aspire to be, and which we value in ways that are hard to explain.
These are the places (the third places) that define us – “Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk there is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging.” (Oldenburg, 1998, p. 26)
In digital placemaking, we are the people who define the metaphorical pub for others, who give the third space its character and reputation, and not always or necessarily the newcomer or novice. In a networked space, we are all newcomers and old-timers. Who we are, what we do, what comments, marks and memories we co-construct and leave behind define us a digital placemakers.
Why digital placemaking matters to learning
Placemaking matters because belonging matters. As learners, learning spaces accommodate us, but our experience of learning can be enhanced by how well the spaces we use meet our personal and collective needs to be stimulated.
Digital placemaking matters even more, especially when using social media, because we have high degrees of agency over the spaces we set up, shape and use, and how we make them work for our learning networks.
Bilandzic, M. & Foth, M. (2017). Designing hubs for connected learning: Social, spatial and technological insights from Coworking, Hackerspaces and Meetup groups. In Carvalho, Lucila, Goodyear, Peter, & de Laat, Maarten (Eds.) Place-Based Spaces for Networked Learning. Routledge, Oxon, United Kingdom, pp. 191-206.
Lefebvre, H. (1974/1991). The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place: Cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York: Paragon House.
O’Rourke, V., & Baldwin, C. (2016). Student engagement in placemaking at an Australian university campus. Australian Planner, 1-14.