Londons Digital Neighbourhoods Workshop - Background Paper
Background paper on neighbourhood online networks
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
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 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
The Harringay site uses the Ning social networking platform.
Bish.net 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 Bish.net 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
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,
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
Example Community Websites 2
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
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.
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
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
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
Coleman, S. (2005). Direct representation: towards a conversational
democracy. London, ippr.
There are summaries here.
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
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?
in partnership with
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