General surveys and commentaries on the quality of local life generally, and neighbourliness specifically, are seldom optimistic. Our media and politicians relish rehearsing the details of rampant anti-social behaviour and stories of neighbours from hell, while celebrating the sepia-tinted days when everyone knew each others’ names and went in and out of each others’ homes. (‘You try and tell the young people of today that, and they won’t believe you’).

There’s one key feature of these narratives of decline which I know a bit about, since it’s been the focus of much of my work for many years: communication channels. In the kinds of historical local community referred to in nostalgic stories, communication flowed through the frequent day to day encounters between residents and the dense overlapping ties.

Now that we tend to live our lives in personal social networks, with fewer daily encounters and fewer work colleagues or kin around us in our neighbourhoods, it’s obvious we need to re-engineer the communication channels that facilitate pro-social behaviour and co-production at local level. Which is just what online neighbourhood networks do.

This message still needs to be publicised, judging by one of the headline findings from a survey commissioned by the Ordnance Survey and described on the BBC today:

‘25% said a community forum where they could air their concerns would help tackle community issues, whilst 29% claimed that a source of local information would help tackle community issues.’

(National survey carried out online by Opinion Matters, 1,977 adult respondents).

It’s great that the question is being asked, but these figures are disappointingly low, in my view. Of course the communication channel doesn’t necessarily have to be online. But neighbourhood online networks boost the flow of openly shared information – 95% of respondents in our 2010 survey said they felt more informed about their neighbourhood as a direct consequence of using their local site – and that is an essential precondition for a confident, responsive local community.

Kevin Harris