Neighbourly-ness

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Recently I started using a social networking site called Neighbourly.

I am encouraging others to try it, as I’ve been an advocate for using new technologies to help build community cohesion, improve public participation in planning, share learning and improve communication.

Place-based online networks like Neighbourly, Nextdoor and MeetTheNeighbours have potential as tools for communicating useful information and knowledge between local residents. Eventually Neighbourly could be a valuable platform for local government and residents associations to engage with people in our area. There are limitations in our community because we have lower internet than most of the country – indeed we have lower rates of access than some developing countries!

We’ve seen it used to help solve crime and get stolen property returned. It’s also being used to promote neighbourhood events that bring people out to meet face to face. We have been trying to build trust and care between residents in our neighbourhood as a way to address wicked social issues like child neglect and violence – we are seeing neighbours getting to know each other better and Neighbourly can only help with these bigger processes of community building.

Platforms like Neighbourly will enable organisations to engage with the people they are supposed to serve in new ways. We are seeing the rise of services like online youth work and counseling – as it can be easier for some people to engage online than in person. As Neighbourly develops I expect it will increase the suite of tools available for organisations to target particular groups within a larger population with specific messages and in conversations about issues of mutual interest. Geo-tagging and place-based online platforms will be increasingly important for things like civil defence, e-democracy, tourism, historical archiving and cultural revitalization.

I’ve been organising in my neighbourhood for 15 years and worked for four years as an elected representative for the area so using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Neighbourly seemed like a natural progression to take a lead in online organising as well. Having said that, it’s been great to see a number of local people with no significant public profile or community organising experience take a lead on Neighbourly and in other social media.

Developing a national network on people committed to engaging with their communities is a vision many of us community organisers and development workers have had for years. Neighbourly has the opportunity to provide a powerful platform for mobilising large parts of the population on specific campaigns and supporting critical issues we may be interested in – both in public policy and in specific communities.

There are obvious opportunities for creating learning circles within the Neighbourly network to share best practice and well-established principles of good community development.

Social media is demonstrating how powerful it can be as a tool for social change around the world. While we may not be organising a revolution (just yet), we can use these platforms to share stories, raise awareness, mobilise residents for collective action, collect valuable feedback and information on local priorities, attitudes and behaviours that can provide better evidence for where scarce resources should best be allocated.

I think the growing digital divide is one of the most critical issues that the champions of online community building initiatives and public policy makers need to wrestle with. If we don’t address the elephant in the room of affordable internet access and online skills we will exacerbate already staggering levels of inequality our country is increasingly being shamed for on the global stage.

There are also privacy issues that need to be addressed. Recent revelations that the NSA and its partners have access to all online communication will make many organisations and individuals more nervous about how much data they are prepared to share online about themselves, their community and others.

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