"When I was first on my own I used to bemoan that my fellow renters could hardly be bothered to return a wave but someone kept stealing my newspaper," wrote author Laura Grace Weldon in a recent blog post, "What Makes a Street into a Neighborhood?" "Then we moved to a little house. It was silly how hard it was to meet the neighbors. They'd wave but that's about it."
Along the same lines, Sarah Byrnes wrote in YES! magazine that "[i]n the past, neighbors knew each other and engaged more naturally in mutual aid, sharing common resources and helping those in need. Nowadays, our mutual aid muscles are out of shape and pretty flabby."
The National Conference on Citizenship's Civic Health Index has attempted to bring science into the discussion by measuring things like the percent of people in a place who discuss politics with family and friends (44 percent in Vermont, for example). They found that nine percent of Americans work with neighbors to improve the community, and 16 percent exchange favors with neighbors a few times a week.
Local Sites Drive Engagement
In their new book, "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods," John McKnight and Peter Block provide strategy and tactics culled from decades of community organizing. The book is chock-full of hands-on, face-to-face ideas for pulling neighbors together. The Internet gets a mention, but it should get more.
A recent study from the U.K. by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris found incredible civic engagement impact from neighborhood-focused websites. Among the findings reported by residents who use these websites:
- 95 percent feel more informed about the neighborhood
How is this possible? I'm guessing that the sites studied offer highly relevant (that is, very local) content, don't waste people's time, and emphasize relationships and communication among "participants" rather than simply feeding news to passive "readers." These sites likely move away from social media's 90:9:1 principal, which posits that 90 percent of visitors are lurkers, nine percent pitch in a little, and one percent create the vast majority of a site's content.
Sometimes even the one percent of the content that appears to be user-generated is actually supplied by paid contributors, such as the recent case with Yell.
Front Porch Forum
I see a different pattern with our Knight News Challenge-supported Front Porch Forum. We host a pilot regional network of online neighborhood forums in Vermont with the simple mission of helping neighbors connect and get involved.
In one rural town, we found that half the community had subscribed to FPF after one year and, remarkably, 66 percent had posted. Instead of 90:9:1, we saw a ratio closer to 34:44:22. In another study in Burlington, Vt., where half of the city subscribes to FPF, 90 percent reported that their local civic engagement had increased due to this online service.
Finding quality, timely and accessible local information is a daunting task in our current environment, with traditional media's convulsions and new media's fits and starts. But that's only half the battle. An informed yet isolated and disconnected populace does not make a democracy. We need more efforts like those covered in the U.K. study above that get people connected to neighbors and involved in the places where they live.
That's our mission at Front Porch Forum, and we're excited to find growing interest in turning online words into offline local actions. Please share examples in the comments.