Can social-networking sites be used by neighbors to help each other during disasters, as well as with more pedestrian issues the rest of the time?

NPR recently covered political scientist Daniel Aldrich’s work looking at how neighbors help each other during disasters. From NPR:

Aldrich’s findings show that ambulances and firetrucks and government aid are not the principal ways most people survive … a disaster. Government interventions cannot bring neighborhoods back, and most emergency responders take far too long to get to the scene. Rather, it is the personal ties among members of a community that determine survival during a disaster, and recovery in its aftermath.

When Aldrich visited villages in India hit by the giant 2004 tsunami, he found that villagers who fared best after the disaster weren’t those with the most money, or the most power. They were people who knew lots of other people — the most socially connected individuals. In Japan, Aldrich found that firetrucks and ambulances didn’t save the most lives after earthquakes. Neighbors did.

We watched this phenomenon on Front Porch Forum, an online community-building service, this spring when flood waters ravaged many Vermont communities and people rallied to help those who lived nearby.

Isolation or Benefits?

Meanwhile, Keith Hampton and his Pew colleagues ask: “Do [social-networking sites] isolate people and truncate their relationships? Or are there benefits associated with being connected to others in this way?”

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In their fascinating report, they share several observations from their survey, among them: “In this Pew Internet sample, 79 percent of American adults said they used the Internet and nearly half of adults (47 percent) say they use at least one of the social-networking sites.” The adults surveyed are using Facebook mostly to connect with people from their past — high school, college, family. Facebook doesn’t appear to be used much among current neighbors (see chart above), less than 2 percent in this survey.

Hampton’s earlier work (an e-neighbors study and a previous Pew study) suggests that online social networking can indeed help neighbors connect. And Portia Krebs of USTelecom, the broadband association, reported this past week:

Consider this: 28 percent of Americans know none of their neighbors by name, and fewer than half of American adults know most or all of their neighbors. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Americans who go online daily are more likely than non-Internet users to know some of their neighbors’ names — and 27 percent of Internet users said they used digital tools to talk to their neighbors and keep informed about community issues.

Front Porch Forum — a neighborhood-based network serving small cities and towns — gives registered users an opportunity to discuss everything from road repairs to the school budget. According to FPF, half of the residents of Burlington, Va., subscribe — and an astonishing 90 percent of those users said their local civic engagement increased thanks to this online service.

Facebook works incredibly well to help connect old acquaintances. But it’s not so good at helping neighbors find each other. Perhaps that’s because Facebook is all software and no community management. The role of effective online community management is to bring diverse people together online in civil and constructive conversation. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson weighed in recently on this point:

Modern community building isn’t easy but if there is one thing the Internet has taught me over the past 15 years, large engaged communities are incredible powerful things, both commercially and socially. Building them is important and ultimately very valuable work.

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Amen! We’re excited to see the dozens of online neighborhood forums that are bursting with activity on Front Porch Forum, and we look forward to expanding to more places in the near future. Check out our new web app.