The Orton Family Foundation just published a good article about building place-based community using online tools. Writer Rebecca Sanborn Stone touches on Front Porch Forum, Yelp, outside.in and LifeAt, and she focuses most of her piece on i-Neighbors, a website started by academic Keith Hampton several years ago.
The i-Neighbors team has done a great job spinning major corporate support of their research into a handy set of tools and North America-wide publicity. When trying to understand i-Neighbors years ago, I was told they had 10,000 subscribers across 5,000 of their “i-neighborhoods.” This new article states 73,000 subscribers (impressive!), but doesn’t mention how many groups/neighborhoods that total is divided across. I wonder what their average density is now, that is, the number of members divided by the total households in a given i-neighborhood? (The Washington Post reported 50,000 members in May 2009, but made no mention of density or number of i-neighborhoods either.)
Many observations that Professor Hampton makes in the article jibe with our years of experience running Front Porch Forum… and with some of his past research findings (e-neighbors study and a Pew study)…
… the real value of i-Neighbors might not emerge until there’s a local problem. “Having networks in place is really important,” Hampton says, “You need neighbors in an emergency.”… It’s much easier to bring neighbors together to discuss, resolve and act on an issue if they’ve already swapped recipes and developed a sense of common ground than if you start from scratch when the controversy hits.
The success of an online neighborhood community depends on a number of factors. i-Neighbors recommends keeping the neighborhood size to fewer than 500 households, and the site is more effective in areas with clear geographic boundaries… Interestingly, says Hampton, i-Neighbors doesn’t always work best in more affluent areas. He has seen major successes in typical middle class, suburban cul-de-sacs, and also in extremely disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods where other communication channels are limited and existing social cohesion is frayed.
As easy as it is to click your way into i-Neighbors, the most important ingredients in a thriving online (and offline) community are old-fashioned hard work and organizing. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t apply here; anyone starting an i-Neighbors group will need to advertise the site, work to engage members, and set ground rules for effective participation. i-Neighbors provides a poster template that users can print and hang around the neighborhood or bring door to door, but Hampton says the most successful groups usually have a committed individual or local organization behind them — someone who is concerned about a neighborhood issue, recognizes the value of the technology, and can spread the word and get others to start using the site.
Whether you’re ready to tackle a local legislative initiative or you just want to meet the folks across the picket fence, Hampton says the single most important thing is to just get started. After all, he says, “It only takes one person.” Start a site, tell a few friends, and soon you’ll have a few more. You may be surprised to find how much more you have in common than just a street address.