Balancing "real" and online local collaboration: 80/20?

A few weeks back I posted a piece over here about the Big Lottery-funded Village SOS programme, which supports some exciting and ambitious local projects, plus local web sites, all linked to a forthcoming BBC series.

The local sites are developed using SocialGO – and I remarked that they looked pretty empty. I wondered if this was a bad omen for the Your Square Mile programme, using a similar approach, also funded by BIG to the tune of £830,000: most recent YSM news here. I wrote:

The big issue it raises for me, in relation to Your Square Mile, is whether there will be training and support for the local online community builders. I should think SocialGo can delive the technology – but it is people who create the content. Is anyone supporting the Village SOS online managers?

The post was on a clippings blog I use occasionally use, and I hadn’t ticked in the email notification for comments, so I didn’t spot the excellent contributions from my online-savvy friend Ed Mitchell, of the Transition Network, and Claudio Concha, head of new media for BIG. I’m mortified.

Anyway, let me rectify that by flagging them up now, and quoting in full. First Ed Mitchell:

“The correct question before the one of ‘how to train the online facilitators?’ is ‘**Why** train for what type of (online) facilitation?’. What is the value of doing stuff online when the most important element of building local community resilience is face to face interactions? What does a website **really** do for a local community if the goal is to help local groups do stuff together?

“We must avoid the technology and social traps of assuming that because these lovely social networking tools exist, and there is budget to spend, and people want to see explicit evidence of ‘engagement’, and TV programmes want extended engagement tools, that we must do social networking online.

“It sounds to me that your observation that the sites are quiet is a bad thing that must be remedied with activity drawn from online facilitation/engagement practices. Or am I reading that wrong? If I’m right, I would counter that work in the ‘real’ world is far more important, and should have more attention paid to it (not just TV airtime for drama’s sake) than ‘getting stuff online’. One very important pattern the community groups will definitely discover very quickly is conflict – good tele, but not helped by online social networking.

“Transition Towns is a movement of hundreds of community groups in towns, villages, cities, islands and rural areas in the UK and around the world – we recently did a web survey which uncovered a great deal of really interesting information about how the community groups are using the web, our websites, their own websites; we would love to share this with you. As the web co-ordinator it was a challenging finding that, really, shop windows and local noticeboards, kitchen tables and pens and pencils remain the most important tools for community groups…”

And Claudio Concha:

“The vision of VSOS was to inspire rural villages to make a difference in their communities. More widely, we want people across the UK to have an increased recognition of the strength and diversity of rural areas and a better appreciation of rural life.

“One of the outcomes for VSOS was that rural villages have a stronger collective identity and sense of pride, with strengthened social networks and a reduction of isolation for people within their community.

“From talking to the residents of the 10 VSOS villages who have been undergoing a journey of exploration and discovery, both on a community engagement level and a business start up level, we are very aware that “shop windows and local notice boards, kitchen tables and pens and pencils” remain crucial tools, and indeed we would expect these to form the basis of contact within a small community.

“The VSOS website was established as a trial tool that would enable the 10 villages and villagers to contact both people within and outside their immediate vicinity – if they wanted to. As has been pointed out some did more than others, and they all used it in different ways and some not at all.

“Our messaging to the 10 villages over the last few months has been to tell us what is working for them and what isn’t, to enable us to form the launch site that will go live with the BBC series this summer. The purpose of the “real” site when it launches will be to provide relevant news, downloadable documents, event information and an advice line to communities across the UK who have been inspired by the BBC One series and the journey of the 10 VSOS villages from concept to build to live business.

“As well as this will offer full community management. We have learnt important lessons from the SocialGo site which will enable us to make the “real” site much more engaging, rewarding and effective as a community building experience.

“We understand the success is a combination of 20% technology and 80% real human interaction, and we hope that by providing relevant and engaging materials and useful tools for communities the site will be a success when it launches this summer.

“But the website will not be operating in isolation. Working with expert partners and providers the site will link up with the other crucial elements of the Learning Campaign. Unfortunately we cannot say more until the launch, but we fully understand that enabling and empowering communities is not just about providing them with a website community”.

What comes through to me, from these comments, is that where you are trying to develop local relationships and collaborations, face-to-face is far more important than online.  No surprise – but still interesting to have the case put so strong by two online enthusiasts.

At the same time, local sites, like the news and campaigning blogs and online communities being promoted so well by Talk About Local, do have another complementary role.

It’s a matter of choosing methods for purpose – something I explored here, and in the Social by Social game. A local campaign blog like the one Will Perrin of TAL started in Kings Cross can amplify the voices of local people, and have enormous impact. The W14 online community developed by Annette Albert has rightly won an award for its work in helping neighbours connect with each other, and with local agencies.

Neither of those are taking the narrow project focus of Village SOS or (so far) Your Square Mile.

It rather sounds as if Village SOS will downplay the role of local sites, and instead focus on a central resources, with lots of other support at local level.

Which raises another question: if Village SOS sites, focussed on project development, have been less than successful, will YSM sites with a similar focus, do better? My hunch is that while it is clearly important to feature projects from the launch workshops on the YSM sites, that alone won’t create much activity. As I reported here, the sites are private, so outsiders won’t be able to see.

As Claudio says, in relation to Village SOS: “we fully understand that enabling and empowering communities is not just about providing them with a website community”

My understanding is that in the case of Your Square Mile, the technology is indeed all that BIG has funded. Maybe there will be scope to link in other aspects of the innovative and ambitious BIG People Powered Change programme, that includes work by NESTA, Unltd, and the Young Foundation.

I do hope that there is an associated research programme to pick up the valuable lessons that should be learned one way or the other.


  • April 12, 2011 - 5:51 am | Permalink

    I think there is an issue here about the balance between face to face and online interactions. The only role for online spaces which is likely to be successful is to facilitate the continuation of face to face discussions in the periods between face to face meetings. And, the key to this is to ensure that the online discourse goes with the flow of physical interactions and doesn’t try to impose another agenda.

    The other consideration is to ensure the conversations are taking place in the spaces where people are already active and where they feel comfortable. This is where the creation of new spaces could be counter-productive. Facebook is where most people are these days, and it is better to go to where people are than expect them to come to you.

  • James Derounian
    April 12, 2011 - 12:40 pm | Permalink

    How about localised ‘e-bay’ on a community/County/borough basis….whereby people could recycle items, gain some income & release a certain % in to a LOcal BigSoc pot… fund community ventures?

    Would also contribute to sustainability


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