This post I one I promised a while ago in order to do proper justice to the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods report on hyperlocal websites. You can read about the launch event here and access the research directly here. I’m not going to try and replicate the excellent summary and background document and even you don’t have time to read all the detail it is worth taking 15 mins to read this (you can find it here).

Just to recap – the research looked at 3 hyperlocal websites in London, Harringay online , East Dulwich Forum and Brockley Central. Over 400 participants were surveyed, as were officers and Members, and then a mix of focus groups and interviews with all these groups provides more detailed qualitative information. The team also carried out a national survey with 210 responses from officers and 117 from members in order to create a wider picture and more detailed content analysis was carried out over3 6 hour periods on each of the 3 sites, 2 times in order to get an in-depth picture of what people are doing there. The study was supported by desk research in advance of the field work. The reason I note all this is the point out that this is a proper piece of research – not just opinion – and as such provides us with a great building block to show real effects from online interactions between citizens, communities and local government. I think the research team would be happy to acknowledge that this is not a definitive study – its just too wide a topic for the time/resources they had – but the findings are robust and substantiated as far as they go which is great.

As I said you really should read the summary findings but the digested read of these breaks down as follows:

  • Social capital and cohesion: Neighbourly relations: The case study sites stimulate positive connections between residents, both in terms of encounters and exchange. Forty-two per cent of respondents say they have met someone in their neighbourhood as a direct consequence of using the website; and a quarter say they are more likely to see someone they recognise as a result of participating on their site.
  • Collective efficacy: The results show considerable conviction among respondents that collective efficacy is supported by the sites. Three quarters of respondents felt that the local site had had a positive effect on whether or not people pull together to make improvements. There is a sense that social capital is being pooled, visibly, and can be drawn on for individual or collective need.
  • Cohesion and diversity: The sites are not representative of their areas – and due to anonymity being the norm in some cases are not aware of the degree of representativeness. A number of respondents suggested that the sites could make more effort to be inclusive. Given their potential to have influence and to mobilise people, this perceived lack of representativeness could become an issue.
  • Belonging and attachment: Participants in these sites mainly started from a position of feeling that they ‘belonged’ in the area. Nonetheless, 69 per cent felt that participation on the local site had strengthened their sense of belonging. The sites appear to be playing a consolidating role, building stronger attachment on already-sound foundations.
  • Communication and information-sharing: There is clear evidence that the sites are an excellent information sharing resource about all kinds of local issues if you are involved – 92 per cent agree that useful information gets shared efficiently. Council officers and elected members confirmed that they regard neighbourhood websites as important for sharing council news and information on council services and events (62 per cent ʻvery important, 33 per cent ʻsomewhat importantʼ). Information sharing is a vital social glue for any community so this is a useful finding in terms of defining these as communities.
  • Supportive and negative behaviour in local online spaces: The niceties of both negative and supportive online behaviour emerged strongly as themes in this study. It is not clear if someone of these perceptions are as a result of people not being familiar with online interactions generally.
  • Empowerment, civic involvement and co-production: There is evidence in the study that hyperlocal sites offer the promise of increased co-productive relationships with Councils as they provide a channel and encouragement for people to get involved in civic and community issues. There is also the potential for them to as a space for the renewal of resident/council relationships – Neighbourhood websites appear to promote improved relations with local agencies and hence offer a stable platform for coproduction.
  • Co-production: attitudes towards official roles: Twenty one per cent of respondents said that participation on their site had changed their attitude towards council officers for the better. Almost twice as many (42 per cent) said their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better.
  • Empowerment: influencing local decisions: As with the sense of belonging participants started with high levels of belief in their ability to influence decisions. More than half (59 per cent) of respondents already feel able to influence decision-making processes in their area. Our survey question for this measure was based on the Citizenship Survey which reports a national average of 37 per cent for 2009-2010.
  • Civic activism and civic participation: I’ll pick this up later in the post but the overall conclusion was that there was no strong link between participation in the sites and formal decision-making – only 13% of respondents had formal involvement over the last year and this is again in line with the citizenship survey.
  • Barriers to participating in neighbourhood sites: Council officers spoke of a range of barriers, including not being allowed access to local sites from their offices; council reluctance to relinquish control of messages; and lack of internal guidance on how to participate. Some felt that as officers they were not trusted to toe the line; and if they saw a need to contribute online, there were too many barriers to getting approval. The key indicator for a councilʼs decision to engage is a high number of hits on a site.
  • Content mix: The content mix is huge – a broad variety of information gets shared and issues get aired. Some of this is democratic and some is civic – the quotidian of daily existence. There is also more social content and opportunities for offline meet-ups – the main point is that these are vibrant and interesting spaces rather than filled with dull do-gooders.
  • Local identity: The report found that each of the sites contributing to strengthening local identity – will pick this up later as well.
  • Responsible site administration: Good quality moderation / facilitation is hugely valued and is make or break for the success of the sites. This is a tricky one for Council’s as without it it is very difficult for officers / members to participate but it is not something that ‘government’ can provide as the independence of the sites is extremely important to participants.

That’s it for the general round up – this next section picks out the findings that I found particularly interesting and which I will be referencing in my own stuff. I break my comments down as follows:

  • Informal Civic Participation
  • Local Civic Spaces
  • Who’s in charge? Representativeness
  • Moderation in all things
  • Identity matters
  • A little something for the Police
  • Conclusions

Informal Civic Participation

As anyone who has been here before my interest is in defining informal civic participation and looking at how it can connect to formal democratic processes. Good news is – these hyperlocal sites were filthy with it – well the informal stuff at least. The study looked at showed a fairly standard level of connection with formal democratic processes:

“Again following the Citizenship Survey we distinguished civic activism and civic participation. The former covers involvement either in direct decision-making about local issues or in the actual provision of these services by taking on a role such as a school governor. The latter was narrowed in our survey to cover contact with people working in an official capacity (such as a council officer): our question asked about contact as a direct consequence of participation on the local website. Overall, 13 per cent of respondents said they have been involved in formal groups or organisations locally in the past year. This is consistent with recent Citizenship Survey results.”

However a review of the content showed a “strong commitment to local involvement”. The nomenclature is different but the basic premise of a discernible different between informal and formal civic engagement is demonstrated by the research. The report echoes this saying “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.”

This is also reflected in the way in which the Local Council’s use the sites to get early notice of issues of concern to the residents – ie the issues that have not yet made it into the formal realm.  The study concludes on this point that “Those who have sought the revival of democracy in mechanical processes like voting, petitions and scrutiny might do well to examine the way this fertile mix of content nurtures an agitated, involved democracy of everyday life.”

However the use of the term democracy here may be misleading – or at least needs to be clarified as the participants are not showing an interest in politics at all. An good example of this is the exchange quoted below from one of the time slices of content:

ʻI’d rather this thread didn’t turn into a bun-fight between Labour and the LibDems. James, Vikki…..I’m looking in your direction. Please conduct yourselves with some decorum and debate the issue at hand rather than trying to score cheap political points. As PeckhamRose says, this is exactly the sort of stuff that turns people away from politics, even at a local level. This thread poses some interesting points about shared services and efficiencies of scale – why not start there?”

Personally I am not sure what is happening with these hyperlocal sites should necessarily be referred to as local democracy. It has the potential to be democratic and certainly provides the agar jelly (or Public Sphere if you’d like to be less fanciful) that you need to breed democratic debate but so much of the interaction is about the life of the community rather than the decisions that it needs to make. My working definitions of Civic and Democratic boil down to:

  • Civic activities are interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community.
  • Democratic interactions are defined by the presence of a legal body and perhaps framework within which the interaction must take place. Society has applied rules to the process and the participants need to comply in order to contribute to the final outcome. Democratic interactions are distinct from civic ones in that there is no legal obligation for elected representatives to take opinions from the civic space into account (though there will be other pressures) where within democratic processes that legal redress is in place.

By this definition much of what we see within this study is civic rather than democratic though there are examples where the Council has taken a formal process into the hyperlocal site. The exception to this is as East Dulwich where Councillor James Barber provides a constituency surgery service on the site. However I would argue that as this is not in and of itself a decision-making process it stays within the civic realm – albeit provided by a democratically elected representative.

This is not a criticism – we can’t possibly have a vibrant democracy without having vibrant communities to support it – my point is that civic and democratic activities overlap but are separate and as such we need to make sure we are not ascribing shared qualities where they don’t exist.

Local Civic Spaces

Community or hyperlocal websites form new kinds of civic spaces online and the report starts to look at what the ‘public-ness’ of these sites means. The report use terminology from socialogist Lyn Lofland who talks about a distinction between the public and parochial realm. She defines the parochial realm as

ʻcharacterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located within “communitiesʼ.

She adds to this a definition of the public realm as being those spaces:

ʻwhich tend to be inhabited by persons who are strangers to one another or who “know” one another only in terms of occupational or other nonpersonal identity categories (for example, bus driver/customer)ʼ.(Lofland 1998, p9)

She makes an important distinction here between the places where you know people as people and the places where you know people as ‘actors’ rather than individuals. One of the findings from the research is the ability of these hyperlocal sites to create more personal relationships – something that is very important in social capital terms.

But there is still a need to be clear on whether these are places for the community in the sense of a geographically defined group of people or places for pre-existing networks. This also links to the point about representativeness but is really about defining how public the sites are. The report describes one of the sites as follows:

“The forum has the appearance of a public space but has been set up and is run privately by a local resident; it cannot be described as a profit-making initiative, but is socially-motivated without any known connection to existing community groups or movements and without any democratic credentials apart from the transparency provided by its technology; it generates feelings of passionate association among some its members; attracts and comes to be occupied by key civic figures; and they find themselves ticked off publicly by an anonymous voice assumed to be a local resident. This is not how we are accustomed to conducting local democracy.” and goes on to say “Neighbourhood websites remind us constantly and forcefully that they are the online manifestation of a fluid and varied offline world – not the other way round.”

I would challenge this last point – there is every indication from the research that these sites are not manifestations of the offline world with any degree of accuracy and in fact provide a fairly specialised slice of well resources and well intentioned individuals. That’s not to say this is a bad thing – we need interested, articulate people to be active in their community, but it does not make these sites manifestations of the offline world.

But it is useful to reflect on the interplay between the online and offline public realms and the osmosis between them. Throughout the study there are references to online interactions creating offline events and actions from clearing snow, to checking on neighbours, to social meet-up and regular events. I suppose the question I would ask is whether or not these sites represent the most active, most ‘belonging’ of the residents or whether there are other groups out there with similar levels of participation – just not online. I would have to guess the answer is yes to this and so the issues become do you need to integrate them into these hyperlocal spaces in order to move democratically or do you instead need to find them their own separate and more sympatico space? We tend to think of the community in an offline sense as being loosely defined by where you live. You may not feel part of it and you may not like it but that is where you are. Once you can join with people online its possible to have multiple narratives and communities overlaying the same geographical area – all separate fiefdoms with distinct characteristics. This is not necessarily a bad thing – different people flourish in different environments and we cannot expect volunteers to work to a template. However it should make us more cautious with the use of the term democracy and it should make us consider whether these hyperlocal sites are parochial or public.

Sunstein talks about the risk of ‘group polarisation’ within online communities (https://curiouscatherine.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/republic-2-0-reading-and-appreciating/ ) and many of the comments that you see in this study show the tendency towards this

ʻSeems to be for white middle aged people, basically.ʼ ʼI would imagine the website doesnt attract a contribution from a full range of social demographic backgrounds to reflect the actual community as a whole.ʼ ʻdoesn’t seem to represent the diversity of the local community, particularly ethnically and in terms of social class.ʼ

These sites are organic and spontaneous – which is why they flourish – the issue as to whether they are democratic and whether they truly reflect on online civic space is a separate matter. However I suggest that we need to build spaces that help these sites to interact with each other in order to create a democratic space.

Who’s in charge? Representativeness

These sites are public – they are open to anyone who wants to join and they are clearly a valuable community resources for anyone who participants – but its also a truism to say that this publicity in and of itself does not make them representative of their areas (though they may be representative of the participating community). This is clearly stated in the report:

“In our interviews with site founders we learned that each had set their site up with a broad sense of social purpose but no explicit intention to promote community cohesion or social inclusion. The sites do not set out to be, nor claim to be, democratically representative, culturally representative or accountable.”

This is echoed in the survey where 80 per cent of respondents felt that the local site had made no difference to their participation in formal decision-making groups.

These sites function extremely well in the informal civic realm and I don’t think we should be burdening community led hyperlocal projects with the idea that they have to be representative unless they decide themselves that they want to take this step towards formality – in which case there are models that they can use. It would be too easy to stifle the vital social element with too much structure and where you rely on volunteers you need to either resource them up to the hilt (not a current option) or let them organise as they wish to a great extent. There is no need for these civic spaces to be democratic if they don’t want to be – though they probably do need to have some route into the democratic process

The research does show however that some kind of relationship with the representative is both productive and perceived positively from all sides. As quoted above Twenty one per cent of (citizen)respondents said that participation on their site had changed their attitude towards council officers for the better. Almost twice as many (42 per cent) said that their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better. This is reflected with officers and members; Among elected members, 42 per cent find neighbourhood sites to be ʻmostly constructive and usefulʼ while a further 41 per cent were ready to describe them as ʻsomewhat constructive and usefulʼ. For officers the figures were 41 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.

Identity matters

There were some interesting comments around identity in the report which I think are well represented by this quote from the founder of Brockley Central:

When you post a comment, please give yourself a name, out of courtesy to the Brockley Central team and your fellow readers. It takes a couple of seconds to do, but makes conversations much easier to follow. There are people who’ve been posting here daily for years under pseudonyms, but we still don’t know anything about their identity – so choosing a name doesn’t compromise your privacy, it just a demonstration of good manners, which makes conversations easier to follow.ʼ (Nick Barron)

It suggests that while your civic identity needs to be consistent and trackable in some way it doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to your offline identity. Pseudonyms are a useful compromise between privacy and accountability – though for actual decision-making we probably need to manage these a bit more formally.

The report also picks on an important point for officers:

“A final question concerns the potential for people in official positions to contribute pseudonymously. There are complex issues here that are largely beyond the scope of our work but to which we should draw attention. The research reported here followed a workshop run with council officers, elected members and others in September 2009, in which participants were emphatic that officers should not be anonymous or pseudonymous, because it could catalyse the erosion of trust in all sorts of ways. In our study we were told of officers having contributed to sites pseudonymously. One site founder told us with certainty that he is aware of officers who use the site pseudonymously. There seems no reason why officers should not lurk, although it was felt that if required to register they should do so under their official identity.”

When we think about online engagement officers, who will often live in the areas in which they work, are incredible disenfranschised. Some kind of agreement around pseudonyms and civic identity could help unlock participation from a group of people who are already interested and active in what happens locally.

Moderation in all things

Moderation, facilitation, curation – who knows what to call it? The NN study went for the more neutral term of administration and I just wanted to highlight this comment from the report:

“We have seen that council officers and members are often reluctant to engage in local sites because of concerns about getting involved in protracted or discordant conversations. This highlights the importance of the administratorʼs role. This role varies significantly across our three study sites, and can involve a small team, or just an individual. Our focus groups and survey revealed great respect for the way administrators act to contain negative posts and comments, insist on fairness, and remove combustible material. Interviews with administrators have revealed the complexity involved and the stress experienced in the role. There could be a lot at stake. Sites that have allowed a culture of persistent negativity will hold back the ability of this movement to fulfil its social potential. Successful sites which establish balanced argument and avoid the downward spiral of aggressive negativity, and which therefore offer an environment in which councils will wish to engage, depend heavily on the culture established and maintained by founders and administrators. The skills and temperament involved need to be more clearly understood and recognised.”

Some kind of facilitation is obviously both needed and valued – its an important civic role. Give the number of hyperlocal sites which are currently up and running it might be a helpful thought to try and start to do some knowledge sharing directly between them around how they make this particular facet of the sites work. In social capital terms these people are the glue that are holding these communities together and it would be helpful to understand more about what they are doing. Good facilitation is as much art as science but there are techniques and approaches that could be captured as there are in other fields that use this.

A little something for the Police

Much of this report is focused on the democratic impacts and the relationship with councils – but I thought it would also be useful to point out that the findings are equally valid for other agencies and there were measureable benefits from Police involvement. Below are a couple of examples of this:

In Harringay the police, unusually for London, are regular contributors as well as readers. Officers use Harringay Online to monitor local concerns informally as well as using the site to help set local policing priorities. The local police sergeantʼs recent post on 5th November, updating members on an incident, received over two pages of comments. An example of the regular police monitoring of the site to spot local problems arose when a resident posted about a burglary attempt the previous night. The next morning the police had posted the following: “ʻQueenie, Have you reported this to police? I can’t find any trace of it on our crime system. If you haven’t reported it please call 0300 123 1212 and they will arrange for officers to attend and report it.ʼ

And the experience of one user in Herne Hill:

ʻI just had interesting meeting with new officer in charge of one of the local safer neighbourhood teams. In order to get up to speed on what the crime and anti-social behaviour issues are he said that he simply read through the entire correspondence on our local web site. He now knows where the hot spots are, speeding traffic issues, mugging etc etc. ʻHe uses the postings and info on the site as part of his evidence gathering for getting resource to be allocated to an issue or area. ʻHis previous area he was posted to he said, had no local community web site and he was so glad that there was one in his new location as it made their job so much easier.ʼ

And these anecdotes are backed up by the survey results: A quarter of respondents said that their attitude towards the police or Police Community Support Officers had changed for the better.

Conclusions

At the risk of being repetitive….its great to see a piece of research that lifts us from the techno-evangelist level to some actual facts…and the fact that we can now start to debate these facts is great. No small credit due to Steve Johnson of Capital Ambition for commissioning and funding the work. Its clearly just the tip the iceberg though and I hope that this study drives energy and enthusiasm to pick up some of the specific points. For me I think the next questions to look at are around the role of the administrator with these sites as well as more work as to what works for elected members. I also think that it would be very interesting to pick up this point of representativeness and representation.

However – reading back on the post I think the final point I want to make is that these sites are not enough to create the democratic ecosystem for the network society and I think some caution needs to be exercised in showcasing this work to Local Government as I have some concern that many councils would see the establishment of these sites as a manageable short cut to online civic participation. I would highlight this note from the report:

“There is widespread understanding that the independence of these sites is essential but it is acknowledged that as the benefits become apparent, councils themselves could have a role to play in facilitating the development of new sites across their areas. Itʼs likely that a mixed model of relationships will emerge: some sites will flourish with a connection to a single officer or member, others will benefit from a connection to an area forum or other accountable body, others may thrive with occasional input from a range of officers.”

We need to let these sites emerge and develop themselves and if there is any role for government its in skill sharing and enablement – not in moderation or definitely not in technical commission. The trick will be in encouraging Councils to support and collaborate with these sites without exerting the control that makes them (the councils) feel more secure.

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