Wanted: Hyper Local Disruption

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.

Patrick Philippe Meier

39 responses to “Wanted: Hyper Local Disruption

  1. Patrick: that’s great and goes along my thinking of creating hyper-local integrity networks. on a less academic level, in the end, changing society starts at home!

  2. I hope you prove this assumption wrong but this may not work because , at least in America, it’s easy to observe how people are very protective with their personal space. Their apartments are a place where they want to remain private, and normally they want that to be respected.

    This explains why only 10% of the people you greet with a good morning/afternoon in the building corridors actually answers back.

  3. Every place I’ve lived in the United States, I didn’t know my neighbors. That is, until I moved into my apartment now that has a big wrap-around porch where everyone who lives in the building hangs out at night. It’s amazing how much information gets passed around and how much better (safer?) I feel about living here. I’ve actually thought about how useful it would be to set up a simple intercom system so we could buzz each other when we want to hang out on the porch, which, while that’s not a social network, per say, it’s using technology to bring people together in our little community under the same roof.

  4. Follow me up the stairs?

    sorry, couldn’t resist ;)

  5. Haha or loiter by the door as residents come in and out?
    I like this post Patrick, and yes, about time! I think good ‘ole Google Groups is best way to start. It’s not very intrusive and completely voluntary participation, just like the SociaList. Daily or weekly updates prevents inbox crowding. And like the SociaList (and many nonviolent campaigns/movements) people are likely to be enticed to participate based on small things that matter to them. Like selling a bookshelf or finding a dog walker.
    Good luck, look forward to hearing how it goes!

  6. Third Grade Teacher

    “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.”

    You know what really gets to me? When full adults don’t know how to use an apostrophe.

    • You’re right, correct use of an apostrophe is far more important than social cohesion, community building and digital activism. I should be barred from writing anything else in English and stick to French, my mother tongue. This aggression will not stand, Patrick.

      • Patricia Camilien

        I was going to join the crowd and say how great the post is … and then I saw this answer of yours. French is your mother tongue and you insisted I spoke to you in English! Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.

  7. I agree that a mailing list would be great. Community mailing lists or social networks can provide an important infrastructure for emergency planning.

    Perhaps you could wed an Ushahidi map with a mailing list, then the building could curate the map. You could mark all kinds of things relevant to the house, maybe the nearest farmer’s market or directions to emergency shelters and hospitals.

    Welcome to the Bay!

  8. There isn’t anyone in the space that’s doing what you’re looking for very well, but there are definitely some people trying. Here’s one example –

    http://10ants.com/

    I’ve met these guys and they’re definitely giving it a go. Still, plenty of room for innovation in a huge market. I wish you the best of luck!

  9. “3 could be venture capitalists interested in supporting Ushahidi. Perhaps 14 could become lifelong friends. Maybe another 6 might inspire new ideas”

    This is all about how they could be useful to you. I.e. you are as consumer. A network consisting of consumers only isn’t a network really, just a set of disconnected nodes.

    • There’s obviously got to be an incentive for me to put in the time and effort to kick this off. A network of consumers is a network of consumers, basta, not disconnected notes. The Social List is about consumers of information and it’s a tight social network. Maybe I misunderstood, but your comment strikes me as rather odd.

  10. A great idea . . . breaking down the barriers that hold back communication, engagment and social interaction.

    You start one floor at a time and in no time a new hyperlocal community is born.

    Great topic.

  11. You should check out everyblock.com, which serves San Francisco. It’s started out focused on block- and neighborhood-level news and is branching out into connecting neighbors at the microlocal level. Drop me an e-mail if you’re interested in helping us out.

    Adrian

  12. That’s a very interesting idea!

    At Neybor we’re trying to build a comprehensive database of all neighborhoods, subdivisions, and buildings in the US. The site is mainly real-estate focused, but it would be interesting to have some social network integration around individual communities.

    If you sign up you can actually add your own communities/buildings. Feel free to try it and let me know if you have any ideas how we might integrate your ideas with our database.

  13. My neighborhood in Berkeley has a mailing list. It helped organize the block party but it also made me depressed when the old folks posted pictures of the minority kids that were sitting on the curb because they “were probably criminals.”

  14. That feeling of being a stranger while traveling/living everywhere has always made me long for things to be different. There is no easy way to tap into local communities and since early 2009 we’ve been developing a concept to connect people at hyperlocal level. We’re launching in Finland soon and moving onwards from there. If you have specifics you’d want the service to cover do get in touch and I’ll see what can be done.

    • Hi Jussi, thanks for you comment, I can definitely identify. I’m in a different city/country almost every week. Would love to learn more about your initiative in Finland. Will get in touch when I’m back stateside.

  15. Patrick: Couldn’t agree more. The good news is that you’re not alone — my startup is building a lot of what you’re asking for.

    There’s a ton of great work being done around geolocal technology and services right now, and yet so much of it seems to be about “going out”.  We’re at risk of overlooking the power, context, and meaning of the places we’re already in — our homes and neighborhoods.

    I’m so frustrated by this that I co-founded BlockChalk (http://blockchalk.com) to attack the problem. (I used to run del.icio.us, and my co-founders come from Craigslist and Stanford faculty.) We recently raised our first round and are hiring engineers right now.

    It’s still really early but we would love feedback (from anyone reading this) on what people would like to see in a tool that connects and empowers neighbors and local organizations.

    Stephen Hood
    BlockChalk

  16. I didn’t realize what a community junkie I was until I moved out of the apartment building I grew up in, where, a la Cheers, everyone really knew your name. I was gratefully surprised to learn that the management of my new building provides a service called BuildingLink (http://bit.ly/cw2JMX), which serves many, many purposes, most relevantly the intra-building network called NeighborNet, self-described as “the place where you can learn about your neighbors, find people with similar interests and post items for sale or other notices”. Worth checking out. And petitioning your building to do the same.

    The Cheers dream lives on.

  17. Hi Partick,

    What a great blog!

    I wanted to share with you a product called BuildingLink.com–we’re actually used in a few properties in San Francisco among our 800 properties worldwide. BuildingLink is actually a perfect fit for your needs, because there can be so much customization AND…it’s such a great tool for not just residents, but also staff and maintenance. If you’d like more information, I would be happy to share.

    Check out our website, or our own blog: http://www.buildinglink.blogspot.com

    Cheers!

  18. It is indeed madness. I’d choose Ning, but a mailing list is a great place to start. This is (another) place where Facebook’s privacy model fails. I’d bet 90% of you are on FB, but in this case you don’t want to “buddy” up. Perhaps a FB group or page would also work and leverage existing social networking habits and accounts.

    We’ve got a Google Group for my block association here in Brooklyn.

    Not quite 100 folks, but an interesting mixed group. I think it was mostly driven by the sense of community required for a block that feels surrounded by a difficult neighbourhood, so that drew people together.

    • Thanks Nigel, interesting that you suggest Ning but used a Google Group yourself. I’m thinking Google Group over Ning because it’s less of a hassle, you don’t have to leave your inbox. Interesting point re incentives for your Google Group.

  19. My partner and I have built a site that I believe would service your needs – justmyneighbors.com. We too felt that a more connected neighborhood would be a positive thing. In our case, a neighborhood listserv was already in place – with over 2000 members! This listserv certainly serves a purpose and is very active. However, we felt it didn’t create that social level of interaction that neighbors speaking to neighbors generally have. Rarely do you see people ranting at each other face to face on the streets… but it certainly happens on a listserv, particularly when there is a potential audience of 2000 people.

    Justmyneigbors connects you with people that live near you, based on your address, so it is smaller and more local than the many neighborhood listservs. You know the size of your neighborhood and can see the members, but only by their first name and the street that they live on – eg. Chris on Main St. It keeps your email private, unlike many listservs, and it has the notion of special interest groups. These groups, called communities in justmyneighbors, allow you to filter a lot of the noise that you find on listservs. For example, we have an active gardening community with over 60 members. You can join the community and participate in the discussions or not – your choice based on your interests. You can also create private communities that are by invite only, which you could use for your condominium business issues if you so choose.

    It has been in operation for over a year and there are about 900 people in various pockets of Oakland using it today. We invite you to join justmyneighbors and get your condominium signed up!

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