How Social Media & Smartphones Gave Light To Our Urban Darkness

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When I first moved back into Rochester after decades of growing up in the suburbs, I honestly didn’t do much exploring.  I remember the anxiety I felt when I thought about walking into a bar or restaurant for the first time.  Would I feel out of place?  What if I get inside and immediately want to leave?  Where do I park?  

I didn’t know exactly how to get around some areas.  I didn’t know what was happening on the weekends.  I didn’t see the new corner shop or hot new restaurant opening, and even if I did, I didn’t know if it would be any good.

OK, in a short time I quelled those early city worries and became very comfortable with exploring my urban landscape.  Being a photographer naturally makes you more comfortable with this leap.  But over time I realized there was something else that was helping me see and feel a part of my city… social media, and my smartphone.

One cannot underestimate how vital a role social media has played in the growing fascination with our urban centers over the last decade.  Photos featuring breathtaking skylines, or the interior of the latest dimly lit cocktail bar, or maybe a glowing review of a great shop to visit or a restaurant to try… these are all free, informal, consumer-based public advertising campaigns that didn’t exist a little more than a decade ago. Today, their appearance on our “feeds” and “timelines” showing friends enjoying their services is the digital green light, telling us that this is a place we want to be.

People gravitate to what they know and can easily see. For example, someone might choose a chain restaurant because there is a reasonable expectation that their experience will be the same from one Denny’s to the next. In contrast, that restaurant that just opened up downtown might not be so predictable or transparent. The anxiety from not knowing quite how to get there, where to park, or what to expect upon entering can form strong barriers that keep the average American from trying something new in an urban setting.

The advent of social media bridges the gap between the anxiety over the urban unknown, and a potentially unique and rewarding experience. Now that we can see our friends’ and neighbors’ first-hand digital reviews, filled with pictures and maybe even video, we have a virtual “peek in the window,” allowing us to alleviate our uncertainty.

Furthermore, our compulsion to capture and post the perfect photo with our ever-evolving mobile phones makes urban exploration much more appealing. Just as the physical explorers and pioneers of the world were eager to cast out into the unknown and share what they found, so do the digital explorers of today’s urban landscapes. From the ruins of an old downtown warehouse to the trail along the city’s riverside, to the majestic skylines of a rust belt city’s former glory, or the cool shot of the forgotten city neighborhood with narrow streets… we yearn to share the unique visual marvels that our urban cores hold in abundance.

Social media is for the most part a free, creative, real-time, connective and interactive way for businesses and organizations to get their message out into the community.  It’s also a free, fun and interactive way for the consumer to engage with their favorite local business, product and organization.  This creates a channel for relationships between organizations and citizens who enjoy their product or service, and since cities are breeding grounds for social interaction, this is particularly important in our urban business/resident connection.  Sure, you can follow Denny’s or WalMart on your social media feed as well, but the digital interaction between an individual and the nearby independent bookstore, quirky restaurant or neighborhood bar allows for a more personal social media relationship between business and customer.

Smartphones in general have made the urban experience an easier one, especially for the occasional visitor.  GPS and turn-by-turn navigation have turned the once frustrating task of traversing an unknown city into a simple set of directions that lead us right to our destinations.  Local calendars of events, showing the happenings on any given night in your city are just a spontaneous click away.  Finding where to park, getting digital tickets to an event in your email, communicating with friends you’re trying to find in a crowded club, calling an Uber or Lyft and of course, the explosion of the proximity-based dating app Tinder are just a few of the countless ways that smartphones, apps and phone-based services have allowed us to experience all the riches of the urban environments with ease and efficiency.  Just as digital cameras/phones have given the average person the ability to shoot and edit like a professional photographer, smartphones have given the average urban visitor the ability to navigate and experience any city like a local.

The renewed fascination with urban life has likely had a plethora of catalysts, but social media and the smartphone have surely been the long-awaited bridge across the moat that was our urban uncertainty.  With friends as our reviewers and photo bloggers, with digital relationships created between individuals and city shops, restaurants and organizations, with easy navigation and increased awareness of upcoming events, with ride hailing, and with apps that allow us to squeeze the best out of our cities, the virtual world of social media and smartphones have cleared the paths to a more fulfilling physical relationship with our urban environments.