Londons Digital Neighbourhoods Workshop - Background Paper


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Londons Digital Neighbourhoods Workshop - Background Paper

  1. 1. Place matters Background paper on neighbourhood online networks Defining Neighbourhood online networks are web-based systems that provide opportunities for local people to connect, express opinions, share information and shape what happens in their locality. Their content is based on local geographical areas, although participation can be global of course. They come in various forms from full-blown social networks through hyperlocal journalist based sites to more traditional read only websites. These sites are sometimes called digital neighbourhoods or hyperlocal sites. They could in theory be run within local authorities' sites (e.g. forums on Redbridge I) but not editorially managed by them; and they could well have official information fed through them. They could have members leading discussions, and officers 'lurking' or contributing. Example Community Websites 1 Harringay Online Harringay Online was set up in 2007 as an experiment to create connections within a community of about 15,000 people. The transition from connection to co-operation and collaboration is gradually creating real change on the ground. 2009 has brought a street festival involving the closure of one of north London's main arterial routes. A wide range of community network weaving techniques are being planned including experiments with online and real-world art as a medium for building awareness of neighbourliness. The project has also started a community generated neighbourhood visioning work stream, now council backed. The Harringay site uses the Ning social networking platform. provides information, news and comments about local affairs in Bishopthorpe, Middlethorpe and Acaster Malbis, near York. Many sites take a Capital Ambition long time to develop from close association with a single individual, but London Councils was built by a team of volunteers, and other residents are encouraged to contribute. The site combines a blog with detailed static information pages. Started in 2001, since 2004 the site combines blogs with detailed static information pages. in partnership with They can be city-wide (e.g. Stoke on Trent) – or even an island - or be based around something as specifically local as a school, but essentially they are (a) local and (b) involve local people sharing news and views. In our definition we do not include either personal local blogs, or sites run on a commercial basis that aggregate local data, such as Local Mouth,
  2. 2. MyNeighbourhoods or BeLocal. These sites bring together a range of locally-specific data such as jobs, weather, planning applications, house prices and so on. They usually seek to generate connections between residents in order to stimulate visits and therefore revenue; but they are not locally-grown. Example Community Websites 2 London SE1 Set up in 1998, London se1 community website provides local news and discussion for the South Bank, Bankside, Bermondsey, Waterloo and Elephant & Castle. Although there is a discussion area on the site, it is run more as a commercial enterprise and the model is more oriented to a monetised local listings and information resource. Kings Cross Community The Kings Cross site was set up by a local resident in the Summer 2006 ‘as a way of keeping track of all the community things he could see going on’. This is an example of a ‘citizen journalist’ site, with local activists reporting on issues mainly concerning disorder and their environment. What gets discussed on these sites? Critical mass is obviously important to these systems. Their success cannot be predicated either on the need for babysitters nor on the demand for local restaurant reviews. The best ones thrive on and reflect the variety of local everyday life. Residents recommend tradespeople and announce events. They ask for plums in order to make jam, and play frivolous word games (for four and a half years and counting). They explore local history. They pass on announcements (e.g. road closures) and get stroppy about dog fouling. They report and discuss road accidents and their causes, campaign for environmental justice and support project activity. They consider the structure of local government, link to and involve councillors; and interview the leader of the council. What do all these digital conversations amount to? The rapid increase in neighbourhood networks in the last couple of years suggests that there is appetite for sharing local information, building the capacity of local groups to engage with local government on the right terms, and promoting social capital.
  3. 3. We know that levels of general trust have declined, and that people occupy their cars more and their neighbourhoods less. We know that social isolation can kill. We observe that when people interact with their neighbours online, it stimulates face-to-face interaction and shared action about their environment. This phenomenon appears to be a compelling example of what the political theorist Stephen Coleman calls ‘conversational democracy’.1 Do these networks build capacity and stimulate social capital? The research evidence from North America (the Netville and e-Neighbors studies2) indicates that active participation in a simple neighbourhood email list increases a resident’s number of local weak ties: ‘Those who were enrolled and actively participated in e- Neighbors, by sending at least one message to their neighborhood list, experienced an average increase of 4.36 ties in each year of the study.’ 3 Most local elected members and community activists in the UK would give a great deal for such a measurable transformation of apparent community cohesion. Will such accumulations of social capital happen inevitably, or is there some enabling or facilitating role that local government can play? The impact of systems like Facebook that support or strengthen personal social networks, independent of locality, is well-recognised. Neighbourhood online sites reflect a collective experience of place, and their contribution to local quality of life needs to be demonstrated. At Networked Neighbourhoods we propose a single, robust piece of research designed to persuade local government that these channels are important, and to explore some of the issues that are likely to emerge in the future. How might these sites relate to governance? The political salience of active citizenship is unrelenting. The economics of the public sector require citizens to act together to promote cohesion, manage their environment, provide more informal care, reduce waste and deter crime. In most cases this would be facilitated by better communication, and therefore more interaction, at the most local level. Neighbourhood sites using social media offer that, along with the 1 Coleman, S. (2005). Direct representation: towards a conversational democracy. London, ippr. 2 There are summaries here. 3 Hampton 2007.
  4. 4. potential for the involvement of officers and members and the enhanced flow of official information. Most of the debate about the role of social media in relation to local government has been concerned with service delivery and democratic function. Neighbourhood sites take us into a less formal sphere, where citizen opinion is less fractured and less individualised, where discussions accumulate and can be traced. None of this necessarily detracts from formal mechanisms such as scrutiny or petitions, but neither is it always clear to people in local government how they should or could relate to independent local sites. For example, among the research questions we might want to ask are these: what are the risks of 'capture' of an open public discussion area by political interests? do elected members find the discussions useful? What uses do they or could they make of the views they hear? how can the attention of a substantial proportion of a local population (i.e. engagement) be 'exploited' legitimately to help meet the council's objectives? is it reasonable to envisage the future transformation of such networks into mechanisms for formal decision-making over certain local issues, while remaining independent? What would be required for that to happen? Capital Ambition London Councils in partnership with Contact: Hugh Flouch Tel: 078 4323 4476 email: hugh.flouch@networkedneig