Research by Dr.Larry Rosen (read his book ReWired) supports the theory that on-line empathy translates into real-world empathy and that Facebook usage encourages and in fact enables more frequent face-to-face interactions between friends. In addition to my personal experience that this is true, my participation in the Facebook community for our 1,500 home TND Plum Creek, supports this assertion in myriad ways. It has been remarkable to watch the changing ways that our residents have used Facebook. The site serves as the neighborhood lost & found, classifieds, Angie’s List, and bulletin board while also providing a forum for crowd sourced solutions to neighborhood problems. This last function, productive mass collaboration, is relatively new and reflects the common purpose of a successful community; making a better neighborhood. (I encourage you to read Anthony Bradley & Mark McDonald’s excellent book, The Social Organization for an excellent primer on how-to create and harness mass collaboration in your organization or community).
Last month I read a Facebook thread of over 70 posts where-in residents self-organized to occupy a community park that had been taken over by a group of unruly middle-schoolers on a Friday night. The thread which began as a serious gripe session evolved quickly into both problem-solving and action and involved multiple residents from different parts of the neighborhood who did not know each other. Several residents agreed to return to the park together to engage the kids in a dialogue and in short order a teen group was created to organize activities for these kids. All of this took place within 48 hours.
As a developer, former resident, and long-time HOA board member of this neighborhood it was impressive to watch these events unfold on Facebook in real-time without the involvement of the developer or HOA. As I read through the Facebook thread I recalled the hours spent organizing and attending resident committee meetings in the early years of the neighborhood over a decade ago. Often there were only three or four people per committee volunteering a few hours per month to improve their neighborhood. Attracting, engaging and empowering the core community contributors before the rise of social networks was a very labor-intensive effort. It was made easier over time by having more residents and by the gradual sense of ownership those residents had for their community. Many of our early community volunteers continue to give generously of themselves both on-line on our social networks and on committees within the actual neighborhood. They do this largely because they love their community, their neighbors, and their neighborhood.
The residents who came together on Facebook to tackle a difficult issue clearly felt both compelled and empowered to do so. Their collective response required more than just giving a “like” or posting a complaint and waiting for someone else to fix it. In thinking about the relationship between a digital social network and a neighborhood I believe that the physical design of the community is as impactful as the digital interface of the social network. By making connections easy and spontaneous you create an environment that attracts people. We are hard-wired to seek out authentic connections with other human beings and to feel welcomed and valued. Clearly social networks like Facebook are helping us fill our need to be connected. And when we pair that collaborative social platform with a thoughtfully built neighborhood that reinforces connections, interaction, and communication between neighbors, we can reap the benefits of the positive social equity and empathy that our social networks facilitate.
This post was written in response to Howard Blackson’s Better! Cities & Towns post here http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/howard-blackson/17563/social-network-community-edition