Social network design and urban design

“Facebook has built the cities, they’ve built the town squares”

Dave Morin, founder of Path

Is building a social network is like building a city? I watched Urbanize, a documentary describing urban design and the affordances cities must make to cultivate vibrant communities. The words of urban designers echoed many of the challenges faced by networks as they grow.

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First, both must balance growth and community. Growing a city from 1M to 10M is like adding 900 semi-close friends to your top 100. All of a sudden, the community has a different vibe - each person recognizes fewer and fewer other people (it’s an n-squared problem, after all). It’s challenging to maintain warmth and the closeness of a tight knit small town. This is the tension urban designers and product managers must manage.

Second, the most appealing cities have wonderful, inviting public parks and squares, eg the Mall in Washington or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Social networks also need public places for groups to assemble and for voices to be heard to enact change or draw attention to causes.

Third, citizens of cities and networks demand a sense of security. In Durban, where crime rates soared at nighttime, the government built tall buildings along a common path with lots of light and the path became a safe place. In social networks, the community also policies activities and members using the report spam flags to shine light on offenders.

Of course, cultivating social networks and cities are quite different. But perhaps the practice of community product management and urban design share some common principles.

Published 2012-09-11 in


I am partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


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