A digital town hall

To get the word out about the barbeque next door, a rash of burglaries plaguing the street or an illness that’s affecting the elderly lady a few doors down, neighbors can now do something much simpler than make rounds of phone calls or knock on doors.

Through i-neighbors.org, a site developed by Keith Hampton, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, neighbors can instead send an email to the members of their community to alert them to the latest events or news. I-neighbors allows communities to create a presence online, including an email list and web site, and strives to bridge gaps and strengthen community ties. More than 7,000 neighborhoods throughout the U.S. and Canada have registered on the site since it was founded in 2004.

Hampton, a communication sociologist who is studying the site to determine the effectiveness of this type of community building, says that people who participate in neighborhood email lists actually increase their social ties over time and recognize more of their neighbors. He has found that communities with serious problems—be it crime or abandoned houses—use the site passionately to address problems within the neighborhood. “The people who live in neighborhoods who have problems are extremely motivated and will overcome those local barriers to contact,” says Hampton.

In Savannah, Georgia, one neighborhood was quickly notified through their i-neighbors list about a man who had been robbed at gunpoint. This notification got the word out to the community faster than even law enforcement and the media. “We have examples of neighborhoods using it for a host of things—people seeking help when they’re sick and injured, postal carriers who drink on the job and aren’t delivering the mail, arsonists, burglars, drug dealers, homeowners’ associations gone wild, developers trying to steal land and community policing,” says Hampton.

Previously, he found that communities with an established sense of neighborly duty were those most likely to communicate using an email network. Using data gathered from two Boston suburbs, an apartment building and a gated condo community over a period of three years, Hampton also found that those who use the internet the most—including those who have been surfing the web the longest—aren’t necessarily the most cut off from their neighbors. In fact, the opposite may be true. Those who had been using the internet longest may have had few social networks in the beginning of their usage, but actually created more neighborhood social ties over time. “The experience of using the internet may counter the trend of privitism,” he says.

In communities strongly positioned for neighboring, “this provides them yet another means to get in touch with their neighbors.” Communities with real social problems, in challenging environments that made interacting between neighbors difficult, “this type of system tend to help people overcome those barriers.”

Email, especially, makes it much easier to reach out to neighbors. People no longer have to wait around for their neighbors to be at home to convey a message, or even face a barking dog at their neighbor’s house. “Those people who want to have little face-to-face contact with their neighbors—they love this technology,” Hampton adds.

In his own community, i-neighbors has been a hit. Out of 80 homes in his family’s new suburban neighborhood, “something like 90 percent have signed up. We have a very involved neighborhood. [There are a] disproportionate amount of community barbeques and block parties. There are a lot of kids in the neighborhood who play together.”

Currently, Hampton’s research is taking him to public spaces, as he explores how wi-fi access, cell phones and portable music players impact the use of public municipalities. This past summer, he sent research associates to sit in seven public parks in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Toronto to document social interactions of people using these portable devices.

To find or sign up your community on the i-neighbors site, go to www.i-neighbors.org.

Originally published Jan. 10, 2008

Originally published on January 10, 2008