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2007 03 06
Toronto 2.0

One of my early acts when I first got online in the early nineties was to post invented warnings about imaginary tectonic fault lines in the Toronto area to Usenet. I posted these notices with little regard for the geographically dispersed scientific community relying on Usenet for communication and collaboration. The only geologists I knew were my professors, whose collective preference for scouring the Kingston-area countryside for interesting chunks of basalt made the thought of them online seem preposterous. As a geographer whose territory of choice was the local, embodied, and metaphorical spaces we construct through experience, I had trouble believing in virtual communities. They seemed too transient to be taken seriously, and so I made light of distance, reinventing plate tectonics for my own amusement and posting short articles claiming (as a Guyanese engineer I knew did to unwary census-takers) that Ghana and Guyana were actually the same place.

Sometimes, though, a seam of magma will extrude itself through a crack in the lithosphere and rewrite the surface of the earth. A California geologist named Dan found my posts amusing, perhaps because he lived in a real earthquake zone, and initiated a correspondence that lasted for several years. We emailed back and forth regularly, and exchanged postcards until he moved to the east coast. There, although we were now separated by only a few hundred miles, the earthquake connection had been severed and we lost touch. By this time, however, I had come to appreciate the connection between 'real' and 'virtual' spaces. Some virtual interactions, it seemed, were more meaningful than the physical environments I passed through every day.

Imagining fifteen years passing like a rapid swirl of clouds and consider the ways Toronto has become Toronto 2.0. There is, in fact, an online community with this very name, focused (it seems) on aggregating the city's other online communities, including ours here at Reading Toronto. I worry, though, that Toronto 2.0 has become recursive and will ultimately disappear into itself. The various Torcamps feature a shifting but finite cohort of participants, and the chief attraction of local social networking sites seems increasingly to be other would-be tech entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the magic of MySpace and YouTube.

And yet, there is something to this.

A week or so ago, the crew over at Spacing announced that they had created networking profiles on Myspace and Facebook. Grudgingly, and only because Spacing publishes my work, I logged on and created my own profiles on these social networking sites. And discovered something truly novel. It wasn't the people on these networks that grabbed my attention so rapidly, it was the places! Almost immediately I discovered that several of the local bookstores I frequent on a semi-regular basis had posted profiles of their own. Looking at their growing 'friends' lists, I realised that my silent, insular bookstore visits would henceforth need to have regard to the possibility that the person breathing heavily over my shoulder in the poetry section might be someone I had encountered online, recognisable not by name or face but by her choice of anthology. I also discovered networking profiles for a number of Toronto neighbourhoods, most claiming to be in open relationships and seeking new friends. And so I have befriended them all (I do worry, though, that the Junction will discover my dalliances with Kensington Market -- a real worry when the electronic trail is so easy to follow).

It is not that electronic place-based communities are new. One of the early (and largely undocumented) attractions of the internet was reuniting people separated by ambition or war, and ex-patriot communities have thrived in cyberspace. The very language of cyberspace -- electronic highway, web frontier and even surfing -- employs the vocabulary of place, a point made eloquently by Paul Adams, a geographer who explores connections between physical and virtual space. In the 1990s Adams was one of the first to analyze the geographical vocabulary of cyberspace, observing that these metaphors (inscribed deep within the textures of the internet) underscored corporate and state efforts to capitalize upon and regulate the territory of cyberspace, while also helping to explain the very spatial approaches internet users focused on evasion and resistance. Adams has since moved toward explorations of corporeality and identity in cyberspace, fascinating topics in an era where SecondLife turns Nethack into a dull corridor.

I teach a course at York on theories of space and place. In two weeks we will explore some of the spatial meanings of digital geographies. I'll report back on our discussions, but in the meantime will be happy to expand my circle of local acquaintances online.

[Apple tree image by John Charlton and used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/06 at 12:09 PM

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