I've been thinking a lot about just how "local" most people want to be online. The greatest myth about the Internet is that people only want to go to world online. That they only care about creating social networks with friends or people like themselves with similar interests from thousands of miles away. It is as if the cross-dressing organic gardener from Sweden connecting with those like themselves on the other side of the world (someone I met once who shared his tipping point experience with the power of the Internet) has more virtue than enabling a plant swap online among neighbors.
I do not buy it. Increasingly I see more and more people who want to connect locally online. They want two-way online spaces that help them not just consume local news, but also get to know those who live near them even if they aren't like-minds.
People want to come home online. Unfortunately, while local news sites could be a connecting point, most are allowing the divisiveness of unaccountable anonymous reader comments to poison the sense of community. Or for some reason people think regional Craiglist topics show with their politics and local news that public spaces online are simply dumping grounds of conspiracy and obscurity not worth developing.
Through E-Democracy.Org I've been trying something different in my own Standish Ericsson neighborhood of Minneapolis. A couple hundred of my neighbors have come together to talk about local development along the new light rail line, local schools, potholes, and I even started a plant swap. Our real names, civility required model is working in the Seward neighborhood as well and it complements our 1,000 person city-wide Minneapolis Issues Forum quite well. Interestingly our growing interest very local online public spaces was encouraged by our neighbourhood forums in the UK (left).
While city-wide online townhalls called Issues Forum are our signature model (over a decade), neighborhood exchanges starting with plain old working e-mail list are under the radar all over the place. Next week I am convening a discussion on Neighbors Online and the problem with sharing lessons to help all local people connect like this is that no one who does this is connected with others doing it as well. Those who might be inspired to start something for their area are not likely to seek out such forums in other communities. So we have no idea how big the neighbors revolution is online.
We do know that in addition to our embryonic efforts, the academic I-Neighbors project continues, the Front Porch Forum is taking Vermont by storm, and some neighborhood exchanges act like Freecycle, Craigslist, and an Issues Forum all in one like the 6,000 member Cleveland Park e-mail list on YahooGroups can no longer be ignored. Sites like Placeblogger also include neighborhood blogs such as the Coconut Grove Grapevine blog in Miami.
While I am skeptical of unfacilitated online spaces that are technology driven like Topix's forums where they don't have partners and Outside.In's message boards at the extreme local location, at least lots of communities (small towns and cities) have online spaces to try out. I am watching Outside.In's aggregation of local blog posts (I'm not sure that relying on geo tagging by bloggers will get you much local content) to see if that actually builds local community. What saddens me was discovering the JuicyCampus-style anonymous gossip site has made its way to public life with RottenNeighbor.com. Boo. At least these projects help crystallize why it is worth building local online spaces with real community ownership and a sense of responsibility.
In our discussion next week, I hope we identify a number of research questions that would be useful to help us spread neighbor to neighbor networking online. Perhaps you have some answers you can share to the following questions or a comment or a link to your own local neighborhood online.
What percentage of Internet users:
1. Have e-mailed those who live nearest them on their block or just down the road?
2. Have traded an e-mail address on paper with a neighbor.
3. Are aware of or a member of a neighborhood e-mail newsletter (one way)?
4. Are aware of or a member of a neighborhood e-mail discussion list/web forum/neighborhood blog (I'd ask each separately)?
5. Would sign-up for 3 or 4 if one existed for their area?
6. If interested, what topics/uses interest them most?
7. Are aware of or have visited the website for their neighborhood association (only applies in cities)?
8. Are interested in secure online spaces to connect specifically with those on their block for crime prevention, baby sitting swapping, and the kinds of group communication you don't want everyone to see on Google?
9. Add your question in a comment.