Source : https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/community-action-blog/2011/dec/08/facebook-social-media-community-development
Facebook users can claim to have hundreds of friends in their network, yet sometimes find it difficult to name half a dozen people that they have actually met in their local neighbourhood. While social networks have helped people to meet like-minded contacts online, they have had a more limited role in developing face-to-face contact in communities.
But gradually, social networks are beginning to have a bigger role in building community and catalysing neighbourhood co-operation and social action. The recent post-riot clean-up Twitter campaign was one example of how social media can be used to inspire people to get involved in community life.
This was just one of the examples discussed at a round table event last week exploring the crossover of local communities and social media. Organised by RightmovePlaces and Civic Voice, it brought together some of the leading lights in hyperlocal online communities to discuss what role social media can play in supporting and mobilising communities.
One national organisation that has used social media to encourage community action is Keep Britain Tidy. The organisation’s partnerships support director Fran Hayes told participants how it uses existing social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to help change people’s habits nationally and organise local litter pickups.
Keep Britain Tidy now has almost 9,000 followers on Twitter and 2,000 on Facebook. The organisation has encouraged its Twitter followers to take photos of litter in their areas and share them as a Twitpic. It has also launched a closed Ning forum where people can turn conversation and debates into action.
Hayes said that the organisation considers that social media provides a safe environment for “mobilising people who are upset about litter”. He said that the momentum provided by litter picks could snowball and benefit the community further by encouraging locals to collaborate on future projects.
Paul Twivy, of Your Square Mile, an organisation that is building communities both on and offline in 16 UK locations, has worked with some heavy users of Facebook who have failed to realise its potential for community action. “It hadn’t occurred to them that they could set up a Google or Facebook Group for their street,” he noted.
But it is not just social media that can be used to mobilise communities, online blogs and forums can have a similar effect. Hugh Flouch, the founder of Network Neighbourhoods, presented survey data from a 2010 study of the social impact of online communities carried out by his organisation.
The study explored the ways in which people communicate online using citizen-run websites, the impact of that communication, and the implications for local service providers. It focused on three well-established sites around London: Brockley Central, East Dulwich Forum and Harringay Online.
It found that 42% of respondents say they have met someone in their neighbourhood as a direct consequence of using the website. Three quarters of respondents felt that participation on the local site had a positive effect on whether or not people pull together to make improvements to their area, while 69% felt that participation on the local site had strengthened their sense of belonging.
The research concluded that neighbourhood sites appear to be playing a consolidating role, building a stronger attachment on already-sound foundations. They help to raise and debate local issues transparently and provide a channel and encouragement for people to get involved in civic and community issues.
But the research also suggested that there is a limited crossover of activity from online to physical communities. Overall, only 13% of respondents said they have been involved in formal groups or organisations locally in the past year. “It seems likely that local websites can both stimulate and reflect a latent demand for informal opportunities for collective involvement, very much on a dip-in dip-out basis,” said the document.
Flouch told participants at the event that online platforms were good to encourage the habit of communicating with other community members. He added that people do not necessarily have to have any other motivation than wanting to chat. “Logging into a website for half an hour creates a habit of people communicating with their neighbours.”
The participants did briefly discuss the fact that too much of an emphasis on online communities can exclude those not online. Most agreed that online communities are not a panacea – indeed Twivy’s work with Your Square Mile emphasises the need for community development to take place both online and off.
The discussion has highlighted how social networks and online forums are fast becoming recognised as an important tool in community development and the range of tools available to practitioners.