Recent research by Networked Neighbourhoods has got me thinking this week about effective engagement online. The research investigated the surge in citizen-run local websites such as Harringay Online, and the East Dulwich Forum. The research found that users experience a significant increase in their ‘sense of belonging, democratic influence, neighbourliness and involvement in their area.’
What I found particularly exciting about the results was the breadth of people using these online spaces. 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. Notwithstanding the exclusion of the ‘digital underclass,’ who should not be forgotten, these figures suggest the sites are used by a genuine diversity of residents.
The research prompted me to revisit an important challenge in online engagement, best articulated by Clay Shirkey. In his book, Shirkey demonstrates how the internet’s natural tendency is towards social ‘bonding’ over ‘bridging’. The internet creates ‘bonding’ capital by bringing people with commonalities together, and deepening trust and engagement, while ‘bridging’ capital occurs when groups to share its message and make connections with other groups. His analyses certainly resonate with my own experiences online. It’s now very easy to find a group of people who want to campaign for the same social issue, or share the same hobbies, however obscure. As we cluster around these themes, however, we also cluster around the more ingrained groupings of social class, political leanings, race or gender which often underlie them. Perhaps that’s why online social networking is so appealing; it’s very easy to find people with whom you have a great deal in common.
But this tendency poses a risk if we want to create a culture of active citizenship facilitated, in part, online. Shirkey suggests that there are certain people who will be able to bridge between groups, and who will be the next big powerbrokers in our new, networked world. But I want to live in a world where we are all ‘bridgers’. There are many different purposes to public dialogue and deliberation, but one of the most sacred, for me at least, is trying to understand those who think and live differently from ourselves.
Last summer the residents on my street in Brixton held a street party for the Big Lunch. Almost everyone turned out, representing a vast diversity in age, race, political affiliation and life experience. We came together initially just to share lunch, but those connections have grown over the past year into shared baby-sitting, lawn-mower borrowing and those every-day doorstep conversations which often unearth fascinating differences in opinion and experience. These diverse connections are the holy grail of public participation for me; they are the bedrock from which we can build informal community support networks, social cohesion, public trust and political re-engagement. For some they are also the foundation of the Big Society.
But just as I would be unlikely to meet most of my neighbours through work or social gatherings, I would also be unlikely to meet them online, particularly given that Brixton does not yet have an equivalent to Harringay Online. And even if I did, the conversation would focus on whatever shared interest had brought us together. I would probably never hear the stories which they have shared with me in person, about growing up in the Australian outback, living through the Brixton riots, or why they vote for one Party or another.
By clustering around the fairly neutral common theme of locality, local websites are going some way towards creating those neighbourhood connections, and creating that all-important bridging capital. In order to scale this up, however, we’ll need to find new commonalities and themes which will bring together diverse people, and then make sure that the space encourages exploration of differences, not just common ground, once people are there.
If the internet has a natural tendency to group and bond, then it’s a tendency we must resist, or at least try to compensate for. It’s not easy to draw people out of their comfortable groupings. But if you believe, like I do, that engagement should create a more cohesive as well as a more active society, then we must try.