The story of I-Neighbors.org is important to anyone hoping to use technology to complement traditional forms of urban community. The website was created by Keith Hampton, a scholar interested in “the relationship between new information and communication technologies, social networks, and the urban environment.”
A trained sociologist, as a newly minted PhD Hampton taught at the MIT Urban Studies and Planning program from 2001 to 2005. Here he developed and launched I-Neighbors, a “social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods.” The website allows registered users to look up and join “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood has a variety of default functions: email list, polls, business reviews, photos, documents, events, and a directory of other members. Originally it had a “GovLink” service allowing users to connect to local elected officials, but this has been shut down due to cost.
Although the website could use some design tweaks (fonts are too small, for one), the website is reasonably straightforward to use and clearly carefully thought out. I think I remember reading the site was accompanied with some offline training sessions in the Boston area.
Unfortunately, it’s taken off in relatively few neighborhoods. According to a 2006 paper, as of then 23.6% of website users hadn’t joined any neighborhood, and only 9 neighborhoods have over 50 users. These facts suggest it’s either not what they’re looking for, too complicated, or have another usability issue. When users look up a zip code, if another user has not created a neighborhood the systems says there “are currently no i-Neighborhoods in your area” asking, in smaller letters, if they want to create one. Creating new neighborhoods is simple enough, but I bet pre-creating any searched for neighborhood would get more users engaged in the system.
Individually, the tools are useful, and in fact sites have thrived performing almost all individually:
- Business reviews – Yelp
- Geocoded Photos – Flickr
- Neighborhood listservs – Yahoo, Google, private lists
- Neighborhood news – Variety of local news, blogs, neighborhood (offline) newsletters.
Why isn’t there greater use of these functions on the website? In marketing parlance, the ‘unique value proposition’ of social networking websites, is the content and the people, not the functionality. Thus in the fickle world of social networking, some have thrived while others have withered according to their relative popularity among users, not necessarily the sophistication of the functionality. I-Neighbors has struggled to take off in many communities.
Additionally, the content is carefully organized into neighborhood-specific stovepipes. This reduces the potential users able to see, say, the review of a local business. Additionally, urban residents have famously fluid conceptions of neighborhoods, suggesting perhaps the content should be organized in a less rigid way. Although functioning in some ways like a social networking websites, users don’t select which friends they will allow to see their profiles, instead all members of the neighborhood are thrown in together. Additionally, there’s no search functionality for users and users can only see other people in their networks, not across the system. These barriers to finding other people thwart one potential source of interest in the system.
A related conundrum for academic innovators is although they may be able to imagine possible new tools, they can rarely keep pace with the private sector in terms of usability, design, and functionality. However, the market may not produce the websites with precisely the sort of arrangement or functionality we’d like to see. I give Prof. Hampton credit for developing such a sophisticated tool, but it will have trouble to keep pace with private sector websites with dedicated staff making continual improvement.s
One approach to the success of a myriad of highly specialized sites for specific geographically specific information is the one taken by EveryBlock, which aggregates private and government data for every block (or zip code), including Yelp! reviews, geotagged Flickr photos, restaurant inspections, blog posts and crime reports.
A Success Story
One neighborhood, profiled in this academic paper, was particularly successful, resulting in a very vibrant email list. What can we learn from this case? This neighborhood was already well organized offline, is a physically distinct community with an association that adopted I-Neighbors as a platform for online collaboration. The group requires members to use their real names (something the e-democracy.org folks believe in). As an aside, the use of the site also shows the direct connection between neighborhood media to planning and policy, a early hot topics was a redevelopment plans, how the neighborhood corporation was investing revenue in the neighborhood.
This successful neighborhood benefited from several very active members. Although hyperactive participants can be a liability, overwhelming visitors or dominating conversations, a core of enthusiastic participants can benefit a forum because they create a public good – information and opinion – that others can read or react to. This relates to Noor Ali-Hasan’s blog study that argued active conversation starting blogs play an important role in a larger ecosystem of online communication.
Considering the lessons this website provides, two questions arise. First, what is new? What new information was communicated, new relationships developed, or most importantly new outcomes resulted in the real world? It’s not clear how you could prove something like this, but it is the question of central importance evaluating the significance of a new community-building tool. The second but related question, how did the online intervention change existing relationships and arrangements? Did it reinforce them, alter them in another way? Answering these questions rigorously — about I-Neighbors or any other community building website — will help us understand the true potential for the Internet to affect local communities.