Mark Glaser and Paul Lamb each blogged about online community information hubs recently. Good discussion in the comments of both postings. Here’s my response to Paul’s piece…
U.S. local communities are suffering from a lack of engagement and a decline in social connections… people are not as involved locally as they used to be and they don’t know those around them as much. People move more, they work more, fewer stay-at-home moms, TV and internet wrestles people’s attention away from the neighborhood, suburban sprawl development leads to more hours a day in a car by yourself, etc.
So, while access to information is critical, the more fundamental problem to address is to increase local social capital and civic engagement. And many new e-tools don’t really go there. People are anonymous and distant. They likely will never meet in person the others with whom they are interacting. Many tools encourage more screen time, which translates to less sidewalk and face-to-face time.
Front Porch Forum is designed to pull people into neighborhood conversations, like a low-key, low-tech online block party. Once they get rolling, FPF members report increased connection and community involvement. Indeed, one study found 93% reporting increased civic engagement.
Front Porch Forum hosts a network of 130 online neighborhood forums that blankets Chittenden County, VT. An AMAZING 50% of Burlington’s Old North End participates. This area has the state’s largest concentration of urban poverty and associated social ills. It’s wonderful to watch how this community chooses to develop it’s FPF neighborhood forums.
For example, last year, a mother of young kids went out at 2 AM to the playground next to her apartment to ask basketball players to obey the signs and stop playing ball so her baby could sleep. She was beaten by one of the players. Awful.
The neighborhood rallied through FPF, got the word out, organized several meetings, got the electric utility to upgrade lighting, the parks dept to improve signage, the police to seek the assailant and patrol the park more, and the city council, mayor and media to all get involved. Several months later, neighborhood leaders were able to keep the underlying issue (drug-trade violence) in front of everyone through FPF and a new community policing initiative is underway.
This is one of many FPF stories of low-income and other communities doing great work when given simple and effective ways to communicate… no fancy maps, video-streaming, avatars, wikis, etc. needed.