Our report into the viability of local online channels in low income areas has now been published. It describes and reflects on four experimental projects carried out during 2011-2012 in separate localities in England.
The basic rationale was to test whether resident-run online neighbourhood networks could be established in low income neighbourhoods and if they could be shown to bring social benefits.
One of the sites has lost momentum but the work has given rise to other promising online activity. Two other sites are stable but struggle to sustain active participation. The fourth is recognised as a very successful initiative which quickly achieved stability.
The report adds weight to claims that local online channels can be established inexpensively in low income areas, that they can be made sustainable, and that they contribute to the quality of local social life.
The project highlighted the critical dependence on key individuals in getting the sites established and running them successfully. The advantages in having a core of willing key contributors, who appreciate the value and purpose of what they are getting involved in, have also been demonstrated. When an individual, ready and able to lead, is supported appropriately by other residents, a site can go from start-up to stability very quickly.
Only one of the sites managed to achieve a lively mix of information sharing and digital conversation consistently, one less consistently. The report argues that sites which are at present effectively noticeboards rather than discussion forums can still occupy a valued place in the local communication ecology, and have the potential to become well-used networks in time.
We summarise lessons in relation to site design and the choice of software platform. Time and effort has not always been invested in ensuring the design is clean and ‘legible’ to navigate; but there does not seem to have been a sense in any of the sites that a mistake was made in choice of platform. It may be that this choice is less critical than is sometimes believed.
We are critical of the lack of involvement of public services and elected members in the sites. All formal local agencies (including the police, health, housing and advice services) stand to gain or are already gaining from the social value of these sites. In all four localities the official contribution has been disappointingly slight at best – and this has made things harder for the citizens who are trying to bring about change on everyone’s behalf.