Why does the newly opened residential building that I’m moving into in San Francisco have no online social network connecting it’s residents? Some four hundred people live here but they remain completely disconnected, strangers. That really gets to me. We talk about international networks of digital activists spanning the globe from New York to Iran via Zimbabwe and Burma. Yet we remain completed disconnected at the hyper local level.
There’s a good reason why many repressive regimes prohibit large public meetings. These meetings allow people to connect, exchange information and yes, plot. At The Fletcher School (not a repressive environment), we have a list-serve for the student body called “the social list,” which helps Fletcherites connect, exchange and plot. This an opt-in system and not all students choose to get on the list-serve. The vast majority do, however, and the social list has become an integral component of the “Fletcher experience.”
The list has been the site of many political discussions and disagreements, but also an incredible source of information for a wide variety of (real-time) needs: “I lost my contact lenses, anyone have -0.5 vision ones handy?”, “Looking for internships in Cote d’Ivoire, any recommendations?”, “I’ve launched an Ushahidi map for Haiti and need all the help I can get!” What makes this a versatile network is not simply that members share the “Fletcher identify” but that they are geographically concentrated. It matters that members of this network have the opportunity to see each other on a regular basis.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently released a new report on how people use the Internet to stay up to speed on happenings in their neighborhood (H/T Chrissy Martin). “The report showed that face-to-face encounters with neighbors remain the primary method that people talk with each other about community issues.” Proximity matters. More interesting findings as reported in AmericanCity.org:
When it comes to online tools such as email, blogs, text messaging and social networking, only about one fifth of Americans (and 27% of internet users) report such activity. At first glance, this figure may seem underwhelming. But when you consider that practically the same number of Americans (21%) use the telephone to talk about community issues with their neighbors, the numbers don’t seem so bad.
To dispel stereotypes about Internet-addicted shut-ins, the report also points out that frequent Internet use is not correlated with a lack of community engagement (measured simply via if you know your neighbors’ names or not, and how often you talk to them). In fact, daily Internet users are more likely to know their neighbors’ names, and talk with them face to face, than non Internet users.
Just as the New Urbanists have sought to put front porches on homes to get people talking, developers of online tools like social networks can begin to think about how to create virtual opportunities for a “neighborly chat”.
Being connected increases the probability of synergies not to mention serendipity at the local level. Off-line activism is easier if we’re all in the same place. We don’t have to wait until a major issue crops up to organize as digital activists. A simple list-serve can be very useful during quiet times; it increases social cohesion between residents and builds trust. In sum, hyper local connectivity can change the balance of power between people and institutions.
So back to my new building in San Francisco. I did ask the real estate rep whether the building came with an online social network. “No,” was the answer. “You mean none of the residents are connected in any way?” “No” again. For me this is like a smart phone that comes without an address book. You’d think with the new move towards open, connected cities, smart buildings, etc., that new residences would include an online social network component “straight out of the box.” Not so.
This is nuts. For all I know, out of the 400+ residents in my building, 3 could be venture capitalists interested in supporting Ushahidi. Perhaps 14 could become lifelong friends. Maybe another 6 might inspire new ideas that could help human rights monitoring in Burma. Who knows? Nobody. Nobody knows because there’s no online social network to find out.
This means I’ll have to do it myself. I was initially hesitating between a Google Group, a Ning platform and Meetup.com. I’m thinking of starting out with a simple Google Group and potentially transitioning to MeetUp. Any thoughts? As for how I’m going to spread the word, I was thinking of doing the old fashioned flyer-under-the-door trick. I’ll start with my floor and see what happens. Stay tuned for blog updates next month.
Oh, and as for the focus of my first “disruptive” plot, I’m going to find out if we can create an open WiFi movement between immediate neighbors.