Facebook and Company Close Only Some Connectivity Gaps

As much as I may question the authenticity of the “historic town” moniker that is frequently (and ironically) used to describe the uniqueness of a place, Facebook has become just as ubiquitous, if not more so, when it comes to the concept of connectivity. Many of us use online communities for a variety of reasons, some of which are just pragmatic. For example, sharing family photos and video is much more convenient via Facebook than sending mass e-mails loaded down with large files. For all of its benefits, however, there are some things technology simply cannot hope to achieve.

To be clear, comparing digital connectivity with face-to-face connectivity is akin to comparing apples and oranges; I’m not stating that one is definitively better than the other. I am, however, arguing that the communities that are formed via the online world are no replacement for the power of place in fostering relationships through human interaction.

In his book The Art of Placemaking, Ronald Lee Fleming states that visual elements help facilitate memorable experiences in a built environment:

“The merging of art and culture should make the stored humanity of places accessible to the whole community, not just to the design professions…Indeed most people are going to see their own meanings in place and not necessarily know or care about what architects or designers mean to impose on them. But it should be the responsibility of the designers to mitigate the conditions of amnesia foisted on us by so many of our environments.”

I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Flemming while working on my thesis, and his comments regarding the necessity of research in understanding the story of a place were quite cogent. He questioned the development of infrastructure that obfuscates history or, in some cases, only markets the idea of originality.

A branded environment can successfully communicate a narrative as well as inform consumers about a product. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that as we constantly move in and out of artificially manufactured spaces we become more aware of our environment. Perhaps it does the opposite (that is, inure us to drawing specific connections to specific places).

Taken in that light, the design of our shared community spaces suddenly becomes all the more important. Artists and designers, furthermore, have a specific role to play in making our "stored humanity" visible.

Facebook inevitably helps close some of our connectivity gaps. However, it is the physical places and spaces that we inhabit on a daily basis, or perhaps on special occasions, that ultimately influence the sense of identity and ownership we feel living in once city or town versus another. Case in point: Art in the Barn is not the kind of event that can be replicated online, at least not in a way that demands the same level of participation or captures the same level of shared experience.

As a reminder, I’m soliciting ideas and feedback regarding art programs around the country that might help us collectively consider how to transition Goshen from a city ranked somewhat anonymously among the numerous other historic, Midwestern towns to a place that reveals, on a deeper and more authentic level, who and what we are through art and design.