PLAN 83: Article
Tweeting The City

A Series of Real-Time Interactive Forums on Urban Issues

On the third Thursday of every month from May through November of this year, a live online Twitter discussion on various topics related to cities has been conducted by SA+P’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), under the hash tag #citychat.

Like any other hash tag, #citychat is a way to organize a Twitter thread around a given idea, but #citychat is also a time-specific tag for convening a real-time interactive discussion. It’s described as something like a cocktail party with dozens of people carrying on several conversations at once; but on #citychat you can theoretically take part in all of the conversations simultaneously.

Most of the chats are structured with a series of 4-5 questions from a moderator who acts as a combination party host / conversational border collie, shepherding the discussion in productive directions and helping draw attention to those who try but can’t seem to wedge themselves into the conversation.

The seven sessions so far have drawn participants from 72 cities in 19 countries around the world discussing such concerns as post-disaster planning; transforming public space; creating an equity-driven model for economic growth; and, one of the most popular, the relationship between religion and cities.

Sometimes the chats are convened by guests and simply hosted by CoLab, as with Concrete Jungle, an urban farming outfit based in Atlanta that harvests fruit from sidewalk and office park trees and takes it to homeless shelters; in an effort to grow their enterprise into a sustainable operation, they convened a group of urban farm and food justice tweeters for a brainstorming session.

A lively chat can generate 200-300 tweets per hour, which is admittedly a lot to keep track of, and since each tweet is limited to 140 characters, the discussion can begin to resemble a series of bumper stickers. But the discussions are substantial enough that people can find like-minded others and pursue more in-depth exchanges after the chat is over. Or simply find new people to follow on Twitter. In that way, #citychat becomes something of a relationship broker.

At the end of every session, a complete transcript is posted online. And sometimes an especially popular chat will stimulate a new issue of CoLab’s Paper Radio, a collection of essays by chat participants. Since more than 130 people have returned to CoLab’s website to review the transcript of the discussion on cities and religion, an issue of Paper Radio on that topic is in development.

While the sessions generally run an hour, they sometimes can be lengthened. For the chat on post-disaster planning, for instance, the session was extended because slow Internet service in some places makes it hard for everyone to keep pace with the discussion; the expanded time frame gives them more opportunity to chime in.

And in December, #citychat will host a 24-hour session so tweeters from Asia can take part – an opportunity usually forsaken because of the difference in time zones. The session will begin at noon EST on December 5 and run till noon EST on December 6.

At the beginning of the session, an image will be posted of a functional urban space with a description of its current use and context. Over the following 24 hours, using the hashtag #oneidea, participants will be encouraged to reimagine the space visually, using their design software, then post their idea to the other participants for discussion.

The twitter chat concept took hold at CoLab after a seminar on the use of Twitter for Planners had to be cancelled because of problems scheduling space. Instead, they conducted the session on Twitter, which turned out to be particularly well-suited to a profession that already makes abundant use of the app: CoLab, for instance, has 6000 followers and attracts 10-30 more every day.

Future chats will be convened on an ad hoc basis rather than every third Thursday. Chat ideas are always welcome. If you’d like to propose a #citychat discussion, contact Alexa Mills at alexam@mit.edu.