The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Do you have a “go to” place online where you connect with your neighbors? A place where you can get to know people who live near you with incredibly different backgrounds, cultures and interests?
Isn’t it awesome? I think so.
In my own neighborhood of Standish and Ericsson in Minneapolis, I am digitally surrounded by almost 1,000 of my neighbors - about 20% of the households in my area - on a public online “neighbors forum.”
In just the last few weeks, we sent deep dish pizza sales through the roof at a new pizza delivery place struggling to get established, generated local elected officials’ help to take on the FAA over surprise airplane route changes rattling windows, directed neighbors to local Girl Scouts for cookies, and helped a mom find out how to request a new stop sign at a dangerous intersection after she posted saying, “I want my children alive.” Last fall when I started a topic about what are we thankful for, a Dakota neighbor spoke of traditional Native American sites walking distance from all of us.
We want to help spread these type of forums to the diverse communities St. Paul that have until now been less likely to use them.
Starting this week, our non-profit is working to inclusively connect 10,000 St. Paulites online - or 10 percent of households - through our volunteer-led network of 16 public digital neighborhood forums.
Over the last two years, we’ve been piloting efforts in the heavily East African Cedar Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis and the very diverse St. Paul Frogtown neighborhood with large Southeast Asian and African-American populations. Our success is embryonic, but extremely encouraging.
With Knight Foundation support, we have a crucial opportunity to demonstrate that inclusive community engagement online works at scale across an entire central city. We seek to demonstrate that all neighborhoods, regardless of income and the diverse communities within them, can and must be part of an integrated neighbors online revolution.
While Facebook is awesome at connecting friends and family, a PewInternet.org study found that the typical Internet user has only five neighbors as “friends”. They do have a healthier average of 16 “friends” from voluntary groups, of which I assume many are local. However, despite the perceived potential of Facebook, expecting it to magically connect people as “neighbors” through its typical use is misplaced. Local “public life” and how you interact with those you do not know or have not yet met in your community is fundamentally different than how you use private life connections.
In our experience, Facebook must be leveraged for sharing and more on our system. But simply put, a typical Facebook user posting a community-related question instead on my local neighbors forum would reach over 175 times the number of neighbors in one swoop. That is powerful and can generate far more useful, geographically-relevant information.
Nationally, there are no hard numbers about how widespread forum spaces are. There is a patchwork of “electronic block clubs” using Facebook Groups, the large neighborhood or parent e-mail lists on trusty old YahooGroups, and the areas covered by the many “network” players like Front Porch Forum in Vermont, Oh So We, Hey Neighbor, as well as the long-time academic-led I-Neighbors platform. Most of these network sites generally create private neighbor spaces online (our primary model is public).
However, despite the fact that our neighbor connecting field is reaching millions of Americans there is more to the story. There is a long way to go to serve most people.
Our experience and a closer look at the numbers presents a real divide that must be tackled now. For example, when it comes to the online neighbor “joiners,” 19% of Internet users in households who make over $75,000 a year participate. Meanwhile, lower income Internet users in the $30-50,000 range participate at 7%, and under $30,000 a year only come it at 4.4%. We need to act now, before we look back in a generation and see that only certain areas and certain people actually benefited from our digital community engagement movement.
Finally, with our “online townhall” foundation dating back to 1994 when we created the world’s first election information website, we feel that public engagement (meaning open to all, even Google search) is crucial for maximum power and community agenda-setting. We care about people having a voice that has a real impact on local government and the local media. We specifically seek to build online spaces that encourage local public officials to engage with their voters or those they serve in a very public and accountable way.
Disturbingly, PewInternet.org’s Government Online study found that while 25% of white Internet users are are considered to be “online government participators” only 14% of Latinos and African-Americans are as well. Between elections, the world is run by those who show up. Having one segment show up at nearly twice the level isn’t good for democracy or our communities.
When you combine these divisions, it seems clear without action most lower income, highly diverse neighborhoods and the people who live in them will not have the same powerful opportunity to build community, gain their voice and enjoy the simple neighborly fun so many people are enjoying today.
See our detailed compilation of numbers in our Why Digital Inclusion for Community Voices article.
Read more about E-Democracy.org in The Pioneer Press.