A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Greetings, i-Neighbor

 by Fred Gillette




“It's sort of like the joke about the totally immersive new video game called ‘Actual Reality’.  If you want to communicate with your neighbors and find out their interests, why not just ask them face to face?”   (Comment in Slashdot regarding geographically based social networks.)


The term “community” evolved from its early, almost exclusive, geographical reference and came to encompass any collection of people having similar interests.  The most current usage includes people who, with no geographic commonality needed, get together through electronic social networks.  “Neighbor,” however, has mostly held on to its geographic reference over the years.  Uniting notions of geographic neighbors with electronic social community is the i-Neighbors project.


I-Neighbors was conceived by Keith Hampton of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.  It became operational in 2004.  As stated at its web site, “ i-Neighbors is a social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods. The goal of this site is to help individuals and their communities organize, share information, and work together to address local problems.”  To have the best chance of meeting its goals and be used to its most powerful potential, it is intended that an i-Neighbors group consist of a maximum of about 500 households. 


Why do this?


It is well known that proximity, in terms of residence, does not necessarily breed familiarity.  In fact, there’s often a negative correlation between proximity and desire to connect, particularly among the dwellers of the most dense of city neighborhoods.  And yet, many people would prefer to have some degree of connection and familiarity with those sharing their geography.  It’s appealing and desirable to such people to occasionally run into others they know on the street or in a shop.  It can help them feel safer and watched-over.  It can add to their sense of belonging. And it can help them find good coffee.  But it can also be difficult to get to know your neighbors, to break the ice and establish communication with a stranger.  This kind of connection used to occur most often through family ties, over common side yard fences, and by having kids who went to the same neighborhood schools.  But many of these avenues are less available these days.  And the fences are ever more often places where hired yard workers may become better acquainted with each other.

And so, with motivation and desire already in existence for many, yet the means declining, it isn’t surprising that it has occurred to those who have used the internet to build and participate in communities of interest and friendship, that the same process could be utilized to support geographic community.


How it works


Starting up involves a very simple process of going to i-Neighbors.org to see if there is already a neighborhood group formed in your neighborhood.  If not, you may easily establish a presence.  What’s more, this process shouldn’t adversely affect a group or neighborhood organization’s bottom line.  It’s free. 

At this point, the most labor-intensive part of the process ensues.  It’s time to actually get someone to notice what you’ve created.  This may entail putting up notices and flyers on neighborhood bulletin boards and informing already existing neighborhood groups, social organizations and churches.  Talking to people about the project is also permissible. 

Once a neighborhood group is formed, online discussions are typically generated around particular topics and there is a good deal of sharing of documents, links and event announcements. But ways in which it is ultimately used are largely up to the creators.  The flexibility of the network allows for a great variety of approaches to promoting and sustaining community.

It has been found, through experimentation, documentation and the experiences of others, that large neighborhood groups, much over 500 households, work less well toward the goals of establishing social cohesion.  As Hampton states, “… the larger groups are less intimate.  More bad behavior results.”  There tend to be more serious fissions and the site is far more likely to be subject to flaming or electronic vandalism.  “This is almost never a problem with the smaller groups”.

As this whole project has academic as well as social goals, much attention is being given to analysis-of-use patterns.  One of the least expected findings was that about a third of the users are living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Concerns had been that i-Neighbors might be predominantly limited to affluent users who had the luxury of time to address the complexities of community building.  The degree to which this is not the case is one of the more gratifying findings.



Who else is doing this?

There have, in fact, been a number of movements in this direction.  Yahoo and then Google have long facilitated groups, some of them geographically based.  Many existing neighborhood organizations have built their own web sites and have facilitated electronic exchanges among neighbors, who still, by and large, come together physically.  Lifeat.com provides sites, at a cost, for apartment buildings and other residential entities.  Meettheneighbors.org has also worked in this area. Some real estate sites have ventured in, realizing that recognizing the newly awakening interest in geographic community can promote the objective of matching people with the kinds of neighborhoods in which they would like to be living. 

Although all of these deserve attention and credit for the trails they are blazing, it seems that most serious attention and credit should be directed toward i-Neighbors.  It appears to be the approach having the best, current potential to be successful at providing electronic support to geographic community-building on a large scale.  It already is active in over 8,000 neighborhoods with 90,000 users, facilitating the flow of 50,000 plus messages a day.  It has not plateaued; growth continues at a healthy rate.


At its ideal i-Neighbors is a modern amalgam of neighborhood bulletin board, neighborhood association meeting and a chat on the sidewalk.  It was never intended to replace human contact, any more than the bulletin board was.  It was intended to enable and enhance communication among neighbors who have something to gain by knowing each other. Keith Hampton states that there may be others who come to do this on a grander scale.  And that would be fine. “It is about building community, not clicks”.  But i-Neighbors is simply the best thing going, right now, to electronically support geographic community.

One of the factors making a potential neighborhood activist hesitant to get involved in any neighborhood project is the difficulty that can arise when one tries to back away or become less involved.  But an i-Neighborhood group, once established, requires very little maintenance. You can therefore relatively easily give birth to a vibrant, community-enhancing entity but needn’t feel that it requires your perpetual nurturance.  You can even, one day, guiltlessly fade away, knowing that you have helped establish your neighborhood nervous system.








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