I’m sure you’ve heard attacks by now that social media is destroying the fabric of our communities, isolating us from our neighbors and friend. However new research telling us something different. A Pew study on neighbors and online useage found people who go online daily are more likely to know their neighbors. A recent New York Times article looked at various studies projects that found that in fact technology was not driving us apart at all. One researcher featured, Keith Hampton, studied a “neighborhood of the future” created with high speed internet, tools for video conferencing between houses, etc. What did he find?
“It turns out the wired folk — they recognized like three times as many of their neighbors when asked,”
Social media allows us to connect with people we might not have run into in public spaces and find events we might have missed otherwise. When someone is hired at MeetUp they get a copy of Robert Putnam’s landmark book Bowling Alone, published in 2000 before Facebook and social media really took hold. Putnam’s book combined research to show how increasingly disconnected American’s were becoming. Scott Heiferman bought the book shortly after 9/11 and he began to realize the increasing need for communities to reconnect:
Basically, the less you interact with strangers the less you trust strangers and the less yo trust strangers, the less you interact and by that trusting of strangers—really is a proxy for being happy or feeling that the world isn’t totally screwed up. Because if you walk around thinking like that everyone’s an asshole and you can’t trust anybody, one would think ‘oh, well as long as you could just go into your cocoon of friends and family…’ but the reality is if you don’t trust the world around you, you’re going to—it’s a vicious cycle that becomes coarser and nastier and less friendly world.
Heiferman created MeetUps to make it easier for people to connect with each other around interests. He was a huge fan of the band Luna and noticed that while there were people there who he saw at other concerts, he didn’t talk to them. MeetUp provides an introduction and a way to talk to strangers you see around town.
As someone who has moved around a lot over the years I rely on social media to connect with people in new cities. One new tool I’m loving in Nextdoor, a private social network for neighbors. It’s been a huge help in becoming a more active member of my community, learning when neighborhood organization meetings are happening, and rally around key issues in our area. I’m not the typical demographic for my neighborhood so I don’t really hang out in the same places as most of the people on my block. However technology has brought us together in a way traditional structures of community building has not. Other neighborhoods in my area use i-Neighbors to create list-servs and websites that help get the word out about city hearings, community events, and important safety concerns. In both cases technology has made it easier for the generation of Robert Putnam’s disconnected Americans to reconnect with the people around them.
Neighborhoodland, not only connects neighbors but brings them together to transform their community. The site allows people to create campaigns to do improvement projects like creating a dog park, getting a new bus route, or getting more public recycling bins. To suggest a campaign you simply have to fill in the blanks “I want _______ in _________.” Other neighbors can sign on by clicking “me too.” The network helps people find other supporters of their idea for neighborhood improvement and let government and nonprofit agencies see local priorities.
Far from shutting us off from one another, the internet is offering new opportunities for us to connect locally. This is why social media makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. We’re not talking about computers interacting with other computers, we’re talking about people having more opportunity to connect to other people. Social media can make it easier for people to meet one another and in the end that creates less strangers and more friends.