A new academic paper has just been published in Information Communication & Society (iCS) that’s really fascinating…
Neighborhoods in the Network Society: The e-Neighbors Study
Keith N Hampton, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
Professor Hampton has worked in the “e-neighborhood” arena for the past several years and some of his research is available on his website.
This new paper presents findings from a study that provided neighborhood-level online social networking opportunities for four Boston-area neighborhoods… one apartment complex, one gated condo development, and two suburban neighborhoods. Each was provided a neighborhood email list, and a neighborhood website with a bevy of bells and whistles.
The short of it (and I’m condensing and skimming, so likely missing some key points!):
The suburban neighborhoods made better use of the offer, then the condo development, and the apartments were dead last.
The email list became popular in the active neighborhoods and grew from year one to year two of the study, while the web tools got almost no traction
Different issues got different play… “Studies of community email lists have consistently found that their use is primarily for information seeking and household aid, but they are occasionally used to express opinions and discuss politics, civic duties, and collective action (Hampton, 2003, Mesch and Levanon, 2003).”
Neighborhood organizer types love this kind of tool… “Neighborhoods that already have an interest in building community, with the neighborhood context to back it up, are most likely to profit from a neighborhood email list.”
New neighbors and others outside of the inside crowd more readily jump onto this more democratic grapevine… “Within neighborhoods, those who have smaller networks on average, and consequently are the most likely to have a deficit of power and access to information, are the most likely to participate.”
While non-posting lurkers get the information, they don’t get the social boost… “the benefits of an email list are only available to those who actively participate, by sending messages to the neighborhood list. Lurkers experience no change in their network size as a result of observing.”
Active participants see their neighborhood social network grow.
Folks left out of neighborhood social networks due to poverty and other issues will be even worse off if they aren’t able to participate online; they need support… “For those of lower socioeconomic status, residential mobility is a reduced option as they undergo changes in life-cycle and family status, and when mobility does occur, it is less likely to provide access to a neighborhood context that supports the formation of local social ties –with or without the advent of new media. Unless traditional community networking initiatives, those that provide a neighborhood email list, a technology infrastructure, and training, continue and expand the work they have done in less privileged neighborhoods, the “social network gap” between rich and poor, inner city and suburb, will continue to grow.”
Overall, much of what I read jibes with our experience running Front Porch Forum in our pilot area since fall 2006, and our flagship neighborhood forum since 2000. It’s great to get some confirmation from a respected researcher. Also, lots of details and insights that may guide FPF’s development. Thank you Professor Hampton and colleagues!