An article in The Birmingham News by Hannah Wolfson last month (thanks to Keith Hampton for pointing it out) outlines neighborhood-level online activity around Birmingham, Alabama. The stories she relays are happening with Front Porch Forum neighborhoods too… very similar.
They’re part of a growing movement across the metro area, where residents are turning the Internet into a virtual back fence, sharing issues ranging from break-ins to home sales to the latest gossip.
“People are hungry for this. People are concerned about their community,” said Robin Schultz, who founded Bluff Park’s Web site in August after an armed robbery at a nearby Piggly Wiggly. “They just don’t have a way to address these concerns, and the Internet provides an avenue for people to communicate in their little portion of the world.”
“Everybody’s so busy these days,” said Matthew Coleman, a resident of South Avondale who started an online forum for his neighborhood in July. “Most everybody has access to the Web, so it’s a good place to store phone numbers and have a list about who’s a reliable contractor and who’s not. It’s like a small little neighborhood library.”
The Front Porch Forum model works great in residential areas dominated by families, and now we’re seeing it work in more urban, rural and small town settings. The need to connect with neighbors appears to flow across many parts of U.S. society at this time. More from the Birmingham article:
Such groups help neighbors form closer bonds, said Keith Hampton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication who has been researching neighborhood forums for eight years.
He said the forums work everywhere from dense urban locations to far-flung suburbs.
“People in the United States do not spend a lot of time socializing with their neighbors,” he said. “It’s been in decline for 30 years. I would like to think that this is an opportunity to change that.”
The article goes on to mention neighborhood online efforts that cover small condo developments, up to larger suburban neighborhoods of 830 houses. While some of the internet groups seem to focus on business (condo association meeting minutes), the more vibrant ones address the human need to connect with those around you:
Mark Coby, who started a Web site for the Inverness Homeowners Association, said the need for more community contact became clear to him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “You could start at home by knowing your neighbors a little bit better,” he said. “Today it’s real easy not to even contact your next-door neighbor if you don’t have some kind of common bond,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to know who lives in your neighborhood.”
Finally, people think there’s more opportunity for this kind of activity:
Buoyed by his success, Allen’s now trying to link all 99 of the city’s neighborhoods and help those who don’t have a Web site build one. “The more we get out the information, the better armed we are,” he said.