Knowing Your Neighbor, Online and Off

There are two communities in my community. The first is physical—thin, tree-lined streets and pocket parks, Southwestern architecture and community gardens. The second is virtual—a community website and discussion forum, registration required.

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There are two communities in my community. The first is physical—thin, tree-lined streets and pocket parks, Southwestern architecture and community gardens. The second is virtual—a community website, and more specifically a discussion forum, registration required.

When you move into my neighborhood of Civano, there’s no requirement that you get out and about and meet folks, though with the community’s design, it’s just about impossible not to. Mailboxes are clustered and usually a block or two from the house, front porches are wide and easily viewed from the street (and vice versa), and there are plenty of pedestrian paths, so it’s easy to run into your neighbors. The old adage that it can take an hour or more to get your mail—because you meet and socialize with so many folks along the way—is as true here as any New Urbanist development. Beyond design, there are monthly potlucks and speakers series, new neighbor welcome breakfasts, a Sunday farmer’s market at the onsite garden center, and every now and then ad lib street parties and cookouts at the community pool.

The Community of Civano welcome center, soon to be the neighborhood community space and meeting hall. Photo by Al Nichols.

Similarly, when you browse onto the neighborhood website, there’s no requirement that you announce you’re there. From the privacy of your personal computer, you can stroll through the website’s pages—neighborhood business listings, community energy-use reports, neighbor directory, and more—as anonymously as if paging through a magazine in a waiting room.

Recently, however, the other discussion forum administrator and I implemented a requirement that folks registered on the forum use their full real names. We’ve also encouraged neighbors to post a photo of themselves on their forum accounts, but that’s not a requirement.

Why force rigid standards for the virtual neighborhood when such rules cannot be replicated in our physical place? Why not allow forum participants to use alter identities as they do on the other sites they visit? Why create walls—virtual or otherwise—where none exist? Because neighbors have the right to know who they’re talking to and, as is so often the case, who they’re hearing from., where all the (virtual) action takes place.

Civano’s discussion forum has always been a bittersweet place to interact. On one hand, forums dedicated to announcements, upcoming events, classifieds, and meeting summaries provide good information in “real time.” On the other, forums for general, homeowner, and non-Civano (i.e., political) discussion can be contentious. And Civano is not alone. I’ve heard the same from neighbors of other communities with discussion forums. You may have experienced the abrupt realities of e-communication in your own community or workplace, as well. Whether email or online postings, people tend to respond more hastily, and more abruptly, than they would in person. That is, we are less considerate in the virtual world than the actual.

By requiring the use of the participant’s name, our goal is to personalize the discussion forum. I don’t mean that in the generic IT way, as some techno-speak for database-integrated customized web pages that read cookies to make the user feel as if the forum truly recognizes him or her. (Though it does all that.) What I mean is that you know who is behind the virtual wall—you know which neighbor you’re talking to. Add a real photo instead of the ubiquitous, generic avatar, and you can literally see the neighbor you’re speaking with, too.

The implementation of technology for community interaction is tricky. Just as it can speed up communication—and access to communication—it can also leave people out entirely, or just as often leave them feeling as cold as the circuitry in their keyboard before they boot up for the day.

Residents at Tucson’s Sonora Cohousing also have a website and online discussion forum. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Renowned cohousing architect Chuck Durrett provides an example in his most recent blog entry, “Musings: Technology and Cohousing.” He notes that since his cohousing community implemented online-only signups for community dinners six months ago, participation has waned considerably. Whether people forgot, or felt disconnected, the “easier” online way of registering had just the opposite result: it disengaged community participants.

For that reason, and the brash postings of some of our more notorious neighbors, I’ve been urged numerous times to shut down the discussion forum altogether. Yet I hate to kill the messenger when it’s the message that is at fault. That is, the discussion forum is only a tool for communicating; it is not the communication itself. Even by requiring real names and encouraging actual photos, the tool can only go so far in regulating good manners.

That’s true outside the virtual world too, of course, and I sometimes think that as bad as manners may be on the discussion forum, they’re still quite pleasant compared to some of our homeowners association meetings. In either case, tempers can flare, people can say things they later regret—or should regret. They kick and people get hurt.

Sometimes neighbors want to get out beyond even their front porch, as these Civano neighbors did for last year’s 4th of July parade. Photo by Simmons Buntin.

Shutting down the discussion forum is a bad idea, too, because there is an ever-increasing expectation of technology in our society. As technology evolves, so does our access and our use. Already a whole new, abbreviated language has developed around text and instant messaging. But the kind of evolution I’m hoping for is that of being a good virtual citizen—using respect and compassion when communicating online.

If a neighbor slips on a crack in the virtual sidewalk of our online forum, I want to help her up, encourage her to keep walking. What I don’t want is for another neighbor to virtually kick her while she’s down.

In the little experiment that we call Civano, and in the selective realm that is the Civano discussion forum, it turns out that knowing who the neighbor is both online and off keeps the kicking to a minimum. I’ve got the bruise-free shins to prove it, virtually at least.

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