I watched Kevin McCloud’s excellent two-part documentary of his stay in the Mumbai slum of Dharavi last week. I’m a huge fan of Mumbai but this opened my eyes even further to parts fo the city I hadn’t seen. Kevin was at his honest and frank best and reflected the balance of the good and bad of Dharavi very well.

Clearly, in many ways, life in Dharavi can be seen as a squalid mess and Kevin didn’t shirk from any of this. But one aspect that was also covered was the inherent happiness of the people, fuelled by the closeness and extent of the community around them. Although Kevin quite rightly pointed out that community isn’t enough when you living in an open sewer, it was clear that was something there to be learnt in relation to the way we live, our city design and the architecture of dwellings.

Yesterday I did a presentation on Social Media at a technology workshop in town. As the excellent discussion progressed, my thoughts turned back to Kevin’s experiences in Dharavi.

So, the question is, what makes social networking so popular? Obviously, the most popular things are those which satisfy a fundamental need. If we draw a contrasting parallel between our modern life and the close community of Dharavi, we see what we miss, at a fundamentally human level, is the day to day interactions with the humans around us. We sit in houses, flats, cars, offices, largely cut off. When we are in public we are still secluded, hiding in the fog our of business, glumness, frustration.

What social networking gives us is a way to feel connected, to feel part of something, to feel we are close to people. Perhaps even to belong. The day to day, minute to minute, face to face interactions of the people of Dharavi are replaced my tweets, pokes and ‘I likes’.

So, could it be that the popularity of social networking is, at least in part, a product of a failure of urban planning and modern life that has has us feeling lonely and disconnected?

As Kevin also concludes, in the documentary, you wouldn’t swap the comforts of modern life to have a community spirit like Dharavi, but there is clearly something we can draw on to improve the way we live.