Youth migrate online as they lose IRL social space

As I’ve been thinking about ad-hoc basketball hoops in my Chicago neighborhood, one of the frames for these devices is that of the creation and loss of public space for youth.  This year there’s been a ton of media coverage about how youth engage with the Internet and social media, much of it problematizing a perceived overuse of such media, or a preference toward shallower, digital interactions over face-to-face ones.  In Clive Thompson’s write-up of  research from danah boyd‘s forthcoming book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Thompson draws a clear line between the loss of public spaces and social opportunities for youth and their migration online:

It’s true. As a teenager in the early ’80s I could roam pretty widely with my friends, as long as we were back by dark. But over the next three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids. Politicians warned of incipient waves of youth wilding and superpredators (neither of which emerged). Municipalities crafted anti-loitering laws and curfews to keep young people from congregating alone. New neighborhoods had fewer public spaces. Crime rates plummeted, but moral panic soared. Meanwhile, increased competition to get into college meant well-off parents began heavily scheduling their kids’ after-school lives.

The result, Boyd discovered, is that today’s teens have neither the time nor the freedom to hang out. So their avid migration to social media is a rational response to a crazy situation. They’d rather socialize F2F, so long as it’s unstructured and away from grown-ups.

Ad-hoc basketball hoops are  interesting in the context of a trend towards digital social migration because, like online communities, they’re self-organized, ephemeral, and somewhat outside adult spheres.  But, they exist in physical, hyperlocal space.  Furthermore, they’re not mediated by commercial platforms and the conflict between creating a commons and finding ways to exploit that commons to maximize profit.

Hoops in my childhood neighborhood


I went home to visit my family in Central Pennsylvania this week.  Since I’ve been taking photos of improvised basketball hoops around my neighborhood in Chicago, I thought I’d share some photos of hoops around the neighborhood where I grew up.  When I first started noticing improvised hoops in Chicago, I was surprised at the number of hoops that I came across.  I shouldn’t have been. Visiting my childhood neighborhood, there are just as many hoops, they’re just all store-bought.  It’s not that store-bought hoops are nonexistent in Chicago, but for the most part the ones I’ve noticed are usually locked up in a back yard.

When I was growing up, most people had their hoops adjacent to their driveway in a way that was visible, but clearly private.

My childhood hoop, after my parents gave it to the neighbors.

In a new subdevelopment, built on what were corn fields and cow pastures when I was a kid, I noticed that a number of the basketball hoops were set up facing the street.  I thought this was an interesting border of public and private space, semi-formal infrastructure, erected by parents, establishing the street as play space, rather than the street being appropriated by kids.


Categorized as Hoops

Private publics

I’ve been looking for ad-hoc basketball hoops in my neighborhood for the past couple of weeks, taking alleys on my bike instead of the streets as I move from place to place as part of my routine.  I’ve run into these homemade hoops pretty much every day.  I shouldn’t be surprised, because, where I grew up, in a subdivisions bordering farmland, every block had a few basketball hoops lining driveways.  These hoops were more visible than the DIY hoops I’ve been looking for in the alleys of Chicago, but also more private.  It was clear who they belonged to and that they were meant for use by residents of that particular house.  While I’ve come across similar arrangements in Chicago: store-bought hoops, often locked behind a fence; most of the homemade hoops have more ambiguous ownership.  They’re often tacked to utility poles and it’s unclear which residence they’re associated with.  It seems entirely possible that the hoops persist long after their makers have moved to a different block or neighborhood.

Alleys are strange public spaces, they don’t feel owned, but they don’t feel welcoming, or even public, either.  Roaming around the alleys, it feels like you’re walking through a gauntlet of closed garage doors. This could be a function of the turning season, though, as I’ve stumbled upon bumping garage parties in warmer months.  As an adult, I find exploring alleys to be fun, but I wonder how kids feel about alleys as play spaces, their games relegated to a space, shared with dumpsters, broken down cardboard boxes and old couches, seemingly reserved for things meant to be kept out of sight.

Categorized as Hoops

About Hoops

A homemade basketball hoop in a Humboldt Park alley.
A homemade basketball hoop in a Humboldt Park alley.

Hoops is a project that I’m undertaking to find and document, homemade basketball hoops in Chicago. I became interested in these structures when I saw a couple of guys playing in an alley near my house in Humboldt Park. Around the same time, a schoolyard basketball court in the neighborhood had been inexplicably removed and I was feeling frustrated about its loss.  Space for childhood never feels easy in this city and the ad-hoc hoops felt like an interesting facet of the way youth in the city navigate changing resources and geographies.

You can help me with the project by finding and submitting DIY hoops in your neighborhood. I’ve created a mobile web app at that you can use from your mobile phone, or you can share photos using the #diyhoop tag on Instagram.