Social Media and Living Traditions

worldwide diagram of the blogosphere

worldwide diagram of the blogosphere

   Social media are some of the most vibrant traditions alive today. Is it possible that they are preparing our post-industrial culture for a return to living traditions in architecture and place-making? The Original Green book makes a vigorous call for the return of living traditions in design and construction, arguing that true sustainability won’t be achieved without them. But living traditions died in most places in the early 20th century, and many people feel like they’re impossible today. Social media are telling quite another story.

dining room in restaurant in Embu, Brazil

   A decade ago, nobody had heard of blogging, and neither Twitter nor Facebook would be conceived until a few years later. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world participate each day. There are over 50 million blogs, and they have hundreds of millions of readers. In each of these media, rules of participation have been organized, and while the specific writing of a particular blogger on any given day might be unpredictable, the operation of the blogosphere as a whole is quite foreseeable.

   Living traditions in architecture and place-making once worked in very similar fashion. The townspeople were able to build the town because the best ways of building for that people and for that place were well-understood by pretty much everyone.

   Over the past 80 years or so, however, we’ve given up our place-making to the experts, from the transportation engineers to the architects to the mechanical engineers to the construction consultants of a thousand stripes. Just listing all the specialists involved in building a town would be longer than this entire post, so I won’t tire you with that.

front porches along sidewalk in the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   This parallels our abdication of other basic needs, too. Our food is now produced by a thousand specialists, and its source is so distant that when most kids are asked where food comes from, they look at you like you’re crazy and say “the grocery store, of course.” Our clothes are made halfway around the world by people we’ll never meet. Even our bodies are in the hands of countless specialists. If you’re ever sick enough to go to the hospital, you’re likely to lose count of all the specialists that will bill you over the next few weeks.

   What’s wrong with specialists? Doesn’t our modern world depend on them? Wouldn’t we be moving back to medieval times if we dispensed with so much specialism? Social media are opening a window to a very different view.

   The “Comment” button has changed our world in profound ways that aren’t fully comprehended yet, I believe. Beforehand, most people swallowed what the specialists dished out, because “the specialist is an expert in that and I’m not.”

rambla with many people walking, flanked by post lamps and large trees, in Tarragonna, Spain

   But once the Comment button made a conversation possible, we began to discover that other people know useful things about the subject, too. And because they’re speaking in a human voice instead of “expert-speak” or “corporate-speak,” they’re often more credible than the official sources... especially when several of them agree. It’s easy to disregard one or two crazies, but when there’s widespread agreement amongst us, it carries weight.

white stucco chimneys and cistern at the end of a house in Bermuda

   What does all this have to do with architecture and sustainability? Lots. Living traditions of the built environment thrive when the townspeople know what to build and why to build it that way. Social media provide precisely the vehicle for people to share place-making wisdom in a common-sense, plain-spoken way. Real sustainability won’t happen unless everyone’s involved, because making our equipment more efficient won’t make us sustainable... our behavior has to change, too. Put another way, if our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us. Social media, I believe, may be just the ticket for spreading the wisdom of sustainability broadly.

   Look at what’s happening in other parts of our lives. Childbirth is a great example. A half-century ago, the process had become so specialized that women gave birth sedated to the edge of consciousness... or beyond, and fathers were banned to the waiting room. Today, after decades of struggle with the medical establishment, childbirth takes place in a far friendlier and more human setting in most places. Most people don’t dispense with the perceived safety of the hospital setting entirely, but they have insisted on major changes. So the specialists are still there if they’re needed to do our bidding. But we’ve ceased taking orders from them.

streetscape in Pienza, Italy

   We’ve taken back other parts of our lives as well. People would usually follow the doctor’s orders years ago, and they prescribed a growing raft of medications. Today, more people are taking responsibility for their own health, and many self-medicate with vitamins rather than pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor only in the rare instance that something serious is wrong. The growing local food movement is driven in part because people are tired of the massive industrial food chain, and want to know where their food is coming from. “Know your farmer” is a growing cry from these quarters.

   It’s happening in architecture as well. Look at the plethora of shelter shows, for example. Home Depot and Lowe’s thrive because “you can do it; we can help.” Millions of copies of $49 CAD software have been sold. The only thing missing is the wisdom of knowing where to draw those lines. That’s where social media can help... and I believe it will.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Do social sites like Facebook connect the world or isolate people?” I obviously took that question in a different direction, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus Community

Paul Anater @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog

Becky Shankle @ecomod Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson @bobborson Life of an Architect

Nick Lovelady @cupboards Cupboards Kitchen and Bath

Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction

Amy Good @Splintergirl Thoughts of a Splinter Girl

Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Green Rascal Design

Cheryl Kees Clendenon @InDetailSays Details and Design

Saxon Henry @saxonhenry Roaming by Design

Jane Frederick @JaneFredArch Low Country Architect

Denese Bottrell @Denese_Bottrell Thoughtful Content

Chamois Green @chamwashere Cham Was Here

Ami @beackami Multifarious Miscellany

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 11:59 AM

Paul Anater

Great post!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:09 PM


Well said. And optimistic! I agree we're all starved for community. The specialist thing has fragmented us socially pretty much every way you can think of. Family unit? What family unit?! I think you're right that social media is reconnecting us in positive ways. My only concern is how it will separate those who embrace it from those who either can't or choose not to.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:48 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Paul! And Becky, I've seen people join the conversation recently that really surprised me... never thought they would. Some just take longer than others.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 09:41 PM


Your comment on the production of our food being so far removed from us today reminded me of a child who visited my neighbor's farm.  My neighbor, the farmer, had mentioned that they don't milk their cows (they're simply for the enjoyment of having the animals around for a while, and eventually providing a delicious steak or two later on).  The child gave him a funny look and said, "What's milking cows?" Farmer looked at him with an even more quizzical brow and asked, "Where do you think milk comes from?" To which the child replied, "The store." I nearly smacked my own forehead in amazement.

Great post and here's to getting back to the roots of all things - be they groceries, vitamins, or blue prints!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 10:36 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Cham! And if you haven't already, check out yesterday's post... the Web of Daily Life It's another look at how things are connected.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 09:48 AM

Hazel Borys

Thanks for the ideas and images, Steve. Beautiful, as always. And all 3 spheres of sustainability are impacted by these ideas of yours, more on that here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 12:29 PM

Chad Cooper

Great post Steve… I've recently begun throwing myself into Social Media more regularly, after dabbling in it for a while.  (Actually, I first entered into the Social Media craze upon receiving your recommendation to check out the possible benefits of Facebook several years ago.)  Although I've been making greater efforts in exploiting Social Media, Twitter in particular, I've recently wondered what I could do, more specifically, that would be most beneficial to my work/self-employment. Look forward to your additional posts on this topic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 04:21 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks Hazel! Good article on PlaceShakers!

   And good work, Chad! I've seen you lots in the Twittersphere recently. One thought... Twitter is great because it requires you to condense a thought to its essence, being limited to 140 characters. But I'd also suggest blogging, because it allows you to more fully develop an idea. Within the constraints of 500-750 words, that is, because if it gets longer than that, most people won't read it. So I find both very useful... even if nobody read any of them... because they help me get ideas clear in my mind.

   One other thought... I'm also finding that I now get probably 90% of my information from other bloggers rather than from "official" news sites. At least the bloggers are the portal to, or curator of, that information. So don't just write... read, too!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 04:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... I'm working on a follow-up post for (hopefully) later today.

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