Do you have a â€œgo toâ€ place online where you connect with your neighbors? Â A place where you can get to know people who live near you with incredibly different backgrounds, cultures and interests?
Isnâ€™t it awesome? I think so.
In my own neighborhood ofÂ Standish and EricssonÂ inÂ Minneapolis, I am digitally surrounded by almost 1,000 of my neighbors – about 20% of the households in my area – on a publicÂ online â€œneighbors forum.â€
In just the last few weeks,Â we sent deep dish pizza salesÂ through the roof at a new pizza delivery place struggling to get established, generatedÂ local elected officialsâ€™ helpÂ to take on the FAA over surpriseÂ airplane route changes rattling windows, directedÂ neighbors to local Girl Scouts for cookies, andÂ helped a mom find out how to request a new stop signÂ at a dangerous intersection after she posted saying, â€œI want my children alive.â€ Last fall when I started a topic about what are we thankful for, aÂ 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 weekÂ (press releases, etc.), our non-profit is working toÂ inclusivelyÂ connect 10,000 St. Paulites online – or 10 percent of households – through our volunteer-led network ofÂ 16 public digital neighborhood forums.
Over the last two years, weâ€™ve been piloting efforts in the heavilyÂ East African Cedar RiversideÂ neighborhood in Minneapolis and the very diverseÂ St. Paul Frogtown neighborhoodÂ with large Southeast Asian and African-American populations. Â Our success is embryonic, but extremely encouraging.
With Knight Foundation support, we have a crucial opportunity to demonstrate that inclusive community engagement onlineÂ 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,Â a PewInternet.org studyfound that the typical Internet user has only five neighbors as â€œfriendsâ€. They do have a healthier average of 16 â€œfriendsâ€ from voluntary groups, of which I assume many are local. However, despite the perceived potential of Facebook, expecting it to magically connect people as â€œneighborsâ€ through its typical use is misplaced. Local â€œpublic lifeâ€ 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 â€œelectronic block clubsâ€ using Facebook Groups,Â the large neighborhoodÂ orparent e-mail listsÂ on trusty old YahooGroups, and the areas covered byÂ the many â€œnetworkâ€ playersÂ likeÂ Front Porch ForumÂ in Vermont,Â Oh So We,Â Hey Neighbor, as well as the long-time academic-ledÂ 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 aÂ closer look at the numbersÂ presents a real divide that must be tackled now. Â For example, when it comes to theÂ online neighbor â€œjoiners,â€Â 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 ourÂ â€œonline townhallâ€ foundationÂ dating back to 1994 when we created the worldâ€™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,Â PewInternet.orgâ€™s Government Online studyÂ found that while 25% of white Internet users are are considered to be â€œonline government participatorsâ€ 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 isnâ€™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 ourÂ Why Digital Inclusion for Community VoicesÂ article.
Read more aboutÂ E-Democracy.org in The Pioneer Press.