Neighbourhoods online are more sociable

We’ve had neighbourhood web sites since the mid 1990s, and before  that in North America, but not enough research into the extent to which they increase people’s sense of belonging or change attitudes to those public bodies that may engage online.

Today Kevin Harris and Hugh Flouch gave us the results of their work on behalf of Capital Ambition, focussed on three sites in London. Summary here (pdf). I talked to Kevin and Hugh at the lunch break of their conference, together with Debby Matthews.

Experience in Brockley Central, East Dulwich and Harringay Online shows that these sites do make a difference. As one person said: “I knew none of the neighbours until I joined the site”.

Another said: “I can’t walk down the road these days without bumping into one or two people I’ve met directly or indirectly through the forum”.

Where councillors, officers and other representatives of public agencies engage online they generate more positive attitudes among local people.

Other benefits emerge: people feel more able to act together in the common interest, more local pride, and a stronger sense of belonging. The relationships enabled by sites open up more scope for residents working together with public bodies.

But the research also showed that there are barriers to public figures engaging online, often because they are concerned about getting involved in “protracted or discordant conversations”. Online forums can be negative, unless well moderated.

I guess there may also be the “why bother” factor. While Liberal Democrat  councillor James Barber in east Dulwich uses the forum as an online surgery – inviting people to send him their problems – other may wish to avoid engagement.

I was recently offering members of a country council training in social media. One of them summed up the attitude of many of his (older, male) colleagues: “I’ve got a large majority, a stack of unanswered emails, and enough coverage in the local paper. I don’t want any more contact with the public.

“If I do, I’ll go down the pub or meet people elsewhere face to face. That’s what really works”

This highlighted the difference between traditional media and councillor engagement, and the world of social media. The first is about one to many broadcasting, and one to one contacts. Social media and local online sites are many to many, with a different culture and absence of control. This environment requires a different set of skills – and attitudes.

While the research has so far been limited, it provides a framework for evaluating the growing number of local sites and the part that they play in civic life – so good for Steve Johnson of Capital Ambition to have backed the study. The study summary concludes:

This study comes at a critical moment in the history of citizen-state relations. With the establishment of a new coalition government, unprecedented reductions in public sector spending, and a new culture of localism and co- production, citizens are being expected to assume greater responsibility for what happens in their area and local councils are expected to concede power. Neighbourhood websites can play a role in fashioning these new relationships, providing transparent, informative spaces where issues are raised and, whenever possible, local solutions are found.

I would certainly agree with that. If there is follow-on work, I hope it will also look at the other ways in which people are connecting online – not least through social networking sites.

As one council officer working with schools remarked in a training session I ran: “If I need to contact parents these days, I use Facebook. That’s where the kids are – and the parents too”.

What would be really interesting is a study of the whole communication ecology of a neighbourhood … face to face and online, with some analysis of who the key connectors and influencers are.

You’ll find Kevin Harris on his excellent (non tech) Neighbourhoods blog, and Hugh Flouch at Harringay Online, which he set up. These guys know what they are talking about: more here on the Networked Neighbourhoods site.

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