Infrastructure

Connecting With Neighbors Online

While many of the ideas behind “open cities” focus on transforming the relationship between government and citizens, helping citizens to better communicate and collaborate with each other is also an area of increasing interest – one that has less need for fighting government red tape.

Earlier this month, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a new report with survey data on how people are using the Internet and other communication tools to keep informed about what’s going on in their neighborhood. The report showed that face-to-face encounters with neighbors remain the primary method that people talk with each other about community issues – with 46% percent of Americans reporting they had done so in the last 12 months.

When it comes to online tools such as email, blogs, text messaging and social networking, only about one fifth of Americans (and 27% of internet users) report such activity. At first glance, this figure may seem underwhelming. But when you consider that practically the same number of Americans (21%) use the telephone to talk about community issues with their neighbors, the numbers don’t seem so bad.

To dispel stereotypes about Internet-addicted shut-ins, the report also points out that frequent Internet use is not correlated with a lack of community engagement (measured simply via if you know your neighbors’ names or not, and how often you talk to them). In fact, daily Internet users are more likely to know their neighbors’ names, and talk with them face to face, than non Internet users.

What does this all mean? One could argue that people clearly prefer the social interaction of face-to-face communication with their neighbors above other means of communication – and that’s probably true to a point. But the other side of the issue is that people probably find themselves in situations fairly often where they are face-to-face with neighbors, and talk about community issues naturally occurs. (e.g., picking up kids off at school, doing yard work, or waiting for the elevator). Meanwhile, to use the telephone or the Internet requires a deliberate decision to say “I want to talk to my neighbors about this issue right now.”

If this is the case, then part of what’s needed is more thinking into how to better integrate local community into everyday Internet use. Just as the New Urbanists have sought to put front porches on homes to get people talking, developers of online tools like social networks can begin to think about how to create virtual opportunities for a “neighborly chat”. Looking at the exploding popularity of location-based apps like Foursquare, it seems these possibilities should only be growing.

Another issue that the report highlights is that while people who don’t know their neighbors’ names interact on a face-to-face and telephone basis far less than average, but still use online tools just as much as those residents who do know their neighbors. This means that online tools can be a gateway for people who are new to an area or have previously not been interested in community issues to begin to get engaged with their neighbors.

How can we begin to create these appropriate online spaces for neighborly interaction? In Boston, a group founded by community activist Joseph Porcelli has created a model platform called neighborsforneighbors.org that helps local neighborhood residents communicate and organize themselves online. The entirely volunteer run operation helps 18 neighborhoods manage vibrant discussion forums and blogs, and has generated interest from other cities that want to replicate its success.

Should efforts like these take off, it will be interesting to see how the figures reported by Pew change over time. Ideally, the growth of locally focused and interactive online tools will both increase the number of people meeting face-to-face, as well as online.

Tags: infrastructure, culture, boston, internet, open cities, web applications, web tools, public participation, neighborhoods, community engagement