An electronic front porch

Web 2.0 is re-shaping the way individuals communicate to those living near them, and, concurrently, social media needs to re-form to meet the demands of local communities.

I found an interesting article with a long name, Networking Serendipitous Social Encounters in Urban Neighbourhoods, written by Marcus Foth and published in Australia, which makes the above argument very well.

I had been considering it since another Twitter friend, Michael Cayley (@memeticbrand), challenged me last year to consider how social media supports the way we interact in our neighbourhoods. As Social Capital Value Added blogger and the founder of Riverdale Rapids ning, Cayley’s question is an honest one.

Here’s what I learned from Foth’s analysis:

  • If so designed, Web 2.0 tools can compliment community development work, allowing on-line communities of choice to merge into communities of place. Social media supplement and enhance local channels for communication. (U of T professor Barry Wellman had written extensively on this dynamic, as well.)
  • In times before electronic communications, we relied on neighbours and came to know them. “The fact that people residing in the immediate surroundings were known also established a feeling of security, community identity and a sense of belonging – a feeling that clashes with the experience of living in today’s high density, compact urban environments.” (Foth, 2009) We find community in other places now.
  • The construction of physical “town squares” and other public spaces has becomes less important in these technologically connected times. Electronic communications now facilitate personal interactions and, often, ways of meeting physically. Community connections are strengthened in different ways now.
  • Caution is required as traditional power dynamics can get played out through social media. These electronic “front porches” also have a hierarchy. Those with more social capital gather more social capital.
  • People won’t be attracted to place-focused web 2.0 tools simply because of proximity. Websites like Neighborhood Fruit or Wikimapia or the ubiquitous Craig’s List all offer some more concrete reward for interaction, whether it’s a fresh peach, esoteric knowledge, or a new job.

Foth identifies a social media project he is working on in three Australian cities to develop “urban tribes” which offer enough diversity for on-line subscribers to find others to be self-sustaining, .

In the end, it was a compelling article to find. The magic of the Web2.0 internet is that it offers serendipitous encounters, like those afforded by sitting on a front porch. (In fact, as our neighbourhoods become more homogeneous, the chances that our communities of interest and our local communities will overlap only rises. Our interconnections will only be stronger.)

Only a few days ago, I was talking to a neighbour, by phone, about how the two of us were both sick and therefore house-bound. The only interactions we had had for a few days were through things that plugged into walls. It seemed sort of sad at the time.

Now I can see we were riding the crest of the future.

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