Our 2010 research study, along with plenty of anecdotal evidence, has helped build up a convincing argument for investment in neighbourhood online networks. We argue that investment and intervention may be especially needed in low income areas because of the potential for power imbalances to become exaggerated. People who are accustomed to power and influence are already, understandably, exploiting local social technologies effectively in their collective interests. In less affluent areas it can be harder to stimulate community activity online.

Two recent reports – from e-democracy.org in the US and the Local 2.0 project in England – really help us think more clearly about this, and we review both briefly here before asking whether we need to adjust our expectations.

Lessons from e-democracy.org: paid intervention

The evaluation of E-democracy’s Inclusive Social Media Project describes interventions in two ‘high-immigrant, low-income, racially and ethnically diverse urban neighbourhoods’ in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. For us, the single most striking finding from the project has to do with the amount and nature of intervention. The staff appointed already had personal connections among the residents on each site. The report notes:

‘E-Democracy’s forum outreach staff made exceptional headway on both forums by putting in an average of only about 7 hours a week. In addition to these two paid contractors, the neighborhood residents serving as volunteer Forum Managers contributed to this effort. That means the cost of effectively engaging and supporting forum participation – particularly at startup – is extremely low, making it realistically replicable.’ (p3, emphasis added)

Apart from the need for persistent involvement in connecting with people face-to-face, the key roles appear to have been starting threads and seeding online conversations. A rationale for staff or identified volunteers doing the seeding is put forward:

‘Doing this makes it far easier to move diverse communities toward doing that themselves over time.’

Active residents offered comments like these:

‘It’s been helpful to have someone start those threads since I’m not sure many people would start one.’

‘I am not sure the forum would work without having someone whose job it is to do that.’ (p33)

So the model here is that, to stimulate online engagement in low income neighbourhoods, some professional intervention and a mixture of online and face-to-face community development work may be needed.

There are plenty of nuances in the report around some of the challenges of inclusion, and the point is made that

‘The forum can separate people – it can compound the segregation between those who know and can access the Internet and use it and those who don’t and cannot.’ (p39)

The project required a bit of wrestling with issues of diversity and representativeness, and there’s a discussion of the gender dimension of aggressive political machinations within and behind one of the forums: one woman for example experienced pressures from her family and stopped posting on her forum. Again, the report notes that

‘Sometimes people don’t engage in discussions because there are power dynamics on the ground (off the forum) that people don’t want to engage with…’ (p41)

E-democracy.org’s inclusion work continues.

Lessons from Local 2.0: expectations of dialogue

The Local 2.0 programme was established by the Young Foundation in 2010 to work with local government on exploring ways in which social media could connect and support ‘people in low and middle income neighbourhoods.’ The project involved a range of local initiatives, including local websites and community reporter training, in Kirklees, Kensington and Chelsea, and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk.

As we’d expect, to some extent the sites have ‘helped to connect residents in need with active local residents who are willing and ready to help;’ and being in a public online space, the conversations involving those active residents are of course much more visible to others.

But none of the sites was a triumphant success, and much of Mandeep Hothi’s report is concerned with understanding why, and hinting at the need to ask more closely, what constitutes success?

Take the Notting Barnes site in North Kensington, for instance. The report notes that

‘Content is sparse and attempts to stimulate active engagement from residents have largely failed.’ (p7)

Or Fairstead.org, where ‘content is created by approximately 15 members, all of whom are involved with offline community activity:’

‘Whilst the website has anecdotally resulted in more people being aware of what is happening on the estate, it has not resulted in significant numbers of new people becoming visibly involved in either online or offline community activity.’ (p7)

Mandeep does point to what may be a crucial explanatory factor: expectations of dialogue. To build relationships between residents and with institutions requires dialogue (we discuss this in terms of ‘everyday democracy’ in our 2010 study). But the Local 2.0 report suggests that, while social media ‘supplies opportunities’ for dialogue, the demand isn’t necessarily there:

‘the majority of residents are not interested in cultivating a relationship with local institutions and many are ambivalent about forming relationships with their neighbours online.’ (p9)

The conclusion offered is that ‘social media reflects the conditions of a neighbourhood’ – if people are active offline, this will be reflected online, and the reverse applies:

‘The technology makes participation easier for most, but it does not affect the underlying behaviours and values that really motivate people to get involved.’ (7)

This seems to jettison the idea that social media can have a transformative effect, implying that the only effective approach is to invest in the communication prowess of existing groups of active residents. We might want to question that: apart from anything else, civic worthiness is not the only role that local online forums can support – lots of people are attracted by social gossip, which can have all sorts of benefits. But we have no problem that the challenge is then presented as not ‘how do you engage people with social media?’ but

‘how do you transform people’s interest in local news and events into deeper forms of participation?’

No-one said it was easy

The lessons from these two projects add insights. Neither report claims or appears to be based on the most robust evaluation processes, and the quantitative evidence is scant. But the key conclusions we have discussed help us re-consider what it is we are trying to achieve.

First, when we talk about online neighbourhood networks and distinguish them from, say, static community websites or hyperlocal journalism, we’ve always been conscious that those local sites where digital conversations take place are both harder to establish and decidedly more powerful in their social impact. It may be a mistake to say for example that at a certain point, ‘attempts to stimulate active engagement from residents have largely failed’; when in fact was has happened could be that foundations have been laid for the transparent exchange of information which will lead in time to social involvement, leading in turn to increased civic involvement. Any community development practitioner will tell you, it usually takes even longer than you dare expect.

Secondly, we’ve always recognised that in low income areas, success will be harder to achieve and will require some form of intervention which combines face-to-face and online to stimulate participation. We should not be surprised to find widespread initial disinterest, a sense of stagnation, or slow growth, among people who are wholly accustomed to feeling disempowered and marginalised. If local information is flowing out to people, however passive they are in receipt, that is a bonus to be built on.

Thirdly, crucially, as the e-democracy report suggests, it can make a difference to have someone on the ground stirring things up, connecting and reconnecting, encouraging and provoking, for a few hours a week.

Finally, it’s worth glancing back to our 2010 literature review for the online neighbourhood networks study, which included a section on exclusion and cohesion with particular reference to Keith Hampton’s paper on ‘internet use and the concentration of disadvantage‘. Several of the successful neighbourhood email lists in his study were located in areas with high concentations of disadvantage, areas where residents could be expected to experience serious constraints on their abilities to exert informal social control and establish a stable sense of cohesion. But analysis of the content of messages exchanged within these neighborhoods found evidence of social cohesion and informal social control that were similar to rates found in more advantaged areas, suggesting that internet use can overcome certain constraints to local social interaction. He argues that where we find an alignment of ‘context’ (neighbourhood design and environment), ‘desire for tie formation’ (‘demand’ in Mandeep’s terms), and of course the necessary infrastructure for communication, then internet use is likely to stimulate collective efficacy.