The other night it was -10F with a windchill of -40F here in Minneapolis. When things get that cold, we Minnesotans start thinking about ways to get warm. I think this is why we have a reputation for public innovation, we have a lot of indoor time to think up schemes when the rest of the country is out on their deck enjoying a beer.
So I started thinking about ways to better connect with my neighbors despite the cold.
I am a huge fan of National Night Out when neighbors around the U.S. put up road blocks and hold community picnics in front of their homes on a weeknight in August.
While the foundation of National Night Out is community involvement in fighting crime - neighbors who know each other watch out for each other and each other's property - the gathering means so much more to those who participate.
**Why not declare a night once a year in late January as "National Night On"? ("On" as in "online.") **
Thousands of local media/citizen media/local government/service club/etc. websites could participate, enter their local online places in a directory, and create async and real-time environments for neighbors to say hello, discuss a few issues, and hopefully plan to get together in-person well before the next August.
What bugs me about the Internet, even the rise of social networking, most of the investment tends to reinforce existing ties - friends and family - and the tools that build new ties are more about professional networking (LinkedIn) or dating. There is a huge difference between publicizing private life online and creating open and accessible online spaces for local public life. There are a few projects like E-Democracy.Org's neighborhood forums in Minnesota and England, the Front Porch Forum in Vermont, and the Annenberg School's i-neighbors, and many independent efforts trying to create larger neighborhood-wide exchange, but nothing that I know of designed to be peer-to-peer two-way is essentially block-level based.
So who is with me? Are you ready to "break the ice" online and get to know the people who live nearest to you?
P.S. The other year I wrote an article with online ideas related to National Night Out. Here is the text:
A New Take on NNO: Building from National Night Out by Networking Neighbors Online
2006 Update: E-Democracy.Org is planning pilot neighborhood forums in Minneapolis, then beyond.
By Steven Clift
Every year on the first Tuesday in August, streets across the United States buzz as part of National Night Out. Human connections are built, block by block, with potlucks and conversations. The better we know our immediate neighbors, the stronger and safer our communities become.
As the evening winds down, folks will inevitably say, "We should do this more often. Let's not wait again until next year." However, as the road blocks are removed, the special public space we created for one evening is no more and our regular greetings shrink back to the few houses that surround us, except perhaps for the occasional long distance wave.
This year can be different.
In fact, on many blocks, our once a year "public spaces" are becoming year round online public spaces with the discovery of electronic block clubs. Instead of just going to the world online, we can also come home ... online.
Here are some tips on how to connect with your neighbors online so you can build connections throughout the year.
1. Share E-mail Addresses - At National Night Out pass around a sign up sheet (PDF) (also in Word) that includes space for every household's telephone and at least one address. One person should volunteer to type up and e-mail the results to everyone on the block. Make a print copy for those not online. If you didn't have a NNO party, go door to door and gather the information. Be clear about what will happen to the information people share.
2. Create an E-mail Announcement Group - Create a simple e-mail group in your e-mail program(either a bcc: or even simply cc: the group if under ten addresses. Assume that everyone who signed up on the sheet has opted-in. Every so often remind people they can both "opt-out" or tell others how to get on the list. If your group is more than 20 e-mail addresses you might want to consider using more automated service like YahooGroups or Google Groups. Are you not sure how to create an e-mail group? Here is some advice for Outlook Express and Hotmail.
3. Be an Information Hub - Your "e-block" needs someone willing to monitor various e-mail newsletters, web sites, and blogs for information of very local interest. You can be that person! Pass along important items like local crime alerts, community event announcements, or updates from your city council member with items directly relevant to your area. Do not send your neighbors activist "you should know about this" messages about national politics. If you or others do, many will opt-out and your online public space will die.
4. Use Online to Be Off-line Together - Think of the Internet as the ultimate icebreaker to help new and long-time residents get to know each other a little better. If a giant snowstorm blankets your area, use the online to gather volunteers offline to dig out an elderly neighbor. If someone, perhaps on the next block, falls ill or someone dies, use the e-mail list to put out a call for frozen meals to share with the family. Enjoying a beautiful evening, why not create a spontaneous BBQ by inviting your neighbors to join you and as it gets dark entertain neighbor kids by playing a movie on the side of your house (liberate your computer projector from work). In short, bring back "just-in-time" community that air conditioning, television, and the loss of the front porch have taken away.
5. Exchange Online - If the residents covered by your online network number in the hundreds or if you want to cover a larger area, you might want to explore the following ideas:
* E-mail discussion list - Encourage people to exchange information and discuss local happenings. This is great way to share tips on a good plumber or arrange a plant exchange. Think about creating a neighborhood-wide online discussion group that leverages dozens of e-blocks. Cleveland Park neighborhood in Washington DC has over 3000 members in a neighborhood-wide exchange.
* Neighborhood weblog - This "citizen media" approach works best with lots of photos and someone who has time to feed in local content and goad others to contribute.
* Neighborhood "Tags" - No, not tagging as in graffiti, but "tags" as in keywords used in social software. In simple English, if you use a photo site like Flickr, tag your photos "EricssonMpls" for the Ericsson neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Yes, this is geeky, but in a few years every place will have a "tag(s)" just like websites have domain names instead of numbers. Another tag idea is to combine all kinds of National Night Out photos with the nno tag.
These are a just a few quick online ideas for how to build a neighborhood of neighbors not just houses, cars, and individuals.