Mass-Minded Systems: American Architecture and the Rise of Social Media has been awarded The Paul S. Kossman Endowment for Excellence for design thesis work, The Fifth-Year Thesis Design Excellence "column" Award, and The Alma Heinz and Louis Pohland Award - the three highest honors given to undergraduate and graduate research at The Pennsylvania State University.
My undergraduate thesis was an exploration of the effects of social media on urban architectural social spaces such as city plazas, squares and parks, prompting the following research questions, hypotheses and conclusions which lead into my masters thesis the following year:
initial researched theory:
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter is replacing social presence (face-to-face interaction) as the primary means for human interaction.
second researched theory:
By replacing social presence, social media is de-emphasizing architecture as the primary infrastructure for social interaction.
first researched question:
As social media continues to grow, is public space being marginalized?
third researched theory:
Some purposes of social media and social presence are mutually exclusive. Because of rituals and activities that are directly effected by the characteristics of the tangible environment such as climate, quality of space, sense of place, and our basic emotional and psychological need for physical relations, people have an inherent need for face-to-face interaction that cannot be replaced by social media.
second researched question:
If people have an inherent need for face- to-face interaction, does this imply an inherent need for architecture, as well?
third researched question:
If people have an innate need for architecture as social space, what do these spaces become when they must foster communities formed in both social presence and social media?
As cultures move further into the digital age, there must be a paradigm shift in the way public space and civic architecture is designed. These spaces must reflect the influences of new technologies and society’s engrossment in non-space social interaction to remain a relevant context for human interaction and community development. Architecture must embrace that social interaction does not always require physical proximity by using social media as an organizational resource for bringing people and a social component back to public space. The result of this thesis was an exploration of a new building and spatial typology - an architectural translation of the digital-social to the physical-social and of Internet non-space to physical space. The case study for this investigation being a hypothetical social network, The Open Aid Network, created for the purpose of increasing contact between and aligning the efforts of over 1.8 million humanitarian organizations around the world. Like social networks such as Facebook before it, the Open Aid Network would inevitably establish a physical presence through architecture (see the enclosing document for images of the building design).
While my undergraduate thesis began as a critical investigation of social media as a deterrent to face-to-face communication, the conclusions of the research showed social media as an inevitable means for returning to physical human interaction. Extending these conclusions in to my research as a graduate student, I continued to study the relationship between the built environment, social culture and media systems, but with a focus on these topics in the context of the United States. Continued research in graduate school prompted several new questions:
How did our culture develop to necessitate social media and other social technologies as a means for human interaction?
At what point in history did society last truly interact face-to-face, and what happened politically, economically, or otherwise to precipitate a gradual need for social technology?
Furthermore, how have social spaces in the built environment evolved paralleling changes in the way people interact? How have our social practices become manifest in the built environment?
As a continuation of my undergraduate thesis, the overlying goal of my master’s thesis and ongoing research is to analyze the built environment as an embodiment of cultural paradigms from the Renaissance to today to demonstrate the frameworks that will shape urban social spaces and architecture in the future. The selection of this time period relates to the development of mass-minded systems - mass transportation, mass production, mass marketing, and most importantly for this thesis, mass media, which emerged in the latter half of the Renaissance Period. Research on mass-minded systems found them to have an unintended bias toward social isolation - mass production de-localizes, mass transportation separates, mass marketing isolates consumers, and mass media polarizes. While The benefits of “mass” such as accessibility and affordability were embodied in the American built environment, the negative consequences also became manifest in isolated suburbs, neighborhoods, homes, lack of public space and walkability in our cities, and the deterioration of social spaces in the American home.
More recently, the adoption of the Internet and social media can been seen as a cultural signifier of a paradigm shift in-step with a global transition toward sustainability. While social media is a mass-minded system itself, mass communication, its bias is found to be in social integration and localization, which the built environment will also inevitably embody, as my undergraduate thesis concluded. My masters thesis concludes by stressing that quality of human social interaction is a signifier of a healthy community, and that designing for sociability will inevitably precipitate other requisites of sustainability as symptoms of a well-connected society.
Status: School Project
Location: New York, NY, US