Northeast Ohio Neighbors Use the Web to Help Create Community

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Lorain native Ken O'Neal says his street had a solid sense of community when he was a kid.

KEN O'NEAL: Everybody talked to everybody in the neighborhood. Or they sat on the porch and said, "How are you doing, this afternoon?" Today, my neighbor might nod, but won't have no conversation. It's more anti-social today, than when I was growing up.

Birgit Hilliard has seen the same change on the west side of Cleveland, where she is a community organizer. She works to set-up block clubs and co-hosts occasional ward meetings. But, she says many people tend to keep to themselves and it's hard getting them to work together on neighborhood issues.

BIRGIT HILLIARD: It is definitely a challenge. It's always hard to keep the neighborhood engaged.

And it’s the same in the suburbs, says Cleveland Heights resident Mike Gaynier. He says, it took a drive-by shooting to bring the neighbors in his quiet, tree-shaded community out to meet one another.

MIKE GAYNIER: We had 75 people show-up, shortly after that, for a neighborhood meeting, and out of that meeting came our efforts to figure out how to get to know each other better, how to communicate better, and how to work together for things to improve our neighborhood.

Gaynier flips open a laptop on his kitchen table to demonstrate one tool they’re using.

MIKE GAYNIER: This is our neighborhood website --- what we call the Grant Deming District.

It’s part of a social media site, called NextDoor. Launched by a California tech firm two years ago, the site is like a very localized version of Facebook, focused on neighborhoods. The Grant Deming District is one of more than 8000 neighborhood groups that the company claims to have fostered across the country. Members have to provide proof that they live in a particular community and they can’t hide their identities behind nicknames. A drop-down window on Mike Gaynier’s computer lists 374 members --- about half of the homes in the community. There's a steady stream of posts, ranging from yard sales and missing pets, to discussions about a recent crime. Gaynier likes the fact that it’s a local site devoted to local issues.

MIKE GAYNIER: I’m not a Facebook fan. Basically, they’re just mining data and selling data to people to make advertising revenues.

Right now, NextDoor doesn’t have advertising, beyond members who promote their personal businesses. But Gaynier notes that they’re a relatively new, growing operation, and the eventual ads are inevitable.

MIKE GAYNIER: In the meantime, for us, it’s the right solution for what we needed at this time to try and pull our neighborhood together and to be able to get to know each other and interact on a more efficient level.

In Cleveland's Detroit Shoreway community, Jennifer Spencer uses a different social media site, called i-Neighbors, that works in much the same way. She says it’s definitely broadened the sense of community involvement in her neighborhood.

JENNIFER SPENCER: It's not like a dialog where any one comes to a conclusion, necessarily, but I think it's simply a way to supplement the reality of living together in community.

Spencer says that sometimes these on-line conversations CAN get ugly, and she’s seen her share of ill-tempered arguments and verbal fisticuffs.

JENNIFER SPENCER: I don't think you can avoid that, so that's why I as a user choose what I'm going to get upset about and get into.

Communications expert Leo Jeffres says that's the nature of the Internet, where people often hit the Send key before thinking through an impulsive remark, or are just intent on being vindictive.

LEO JEFFRES: That's why you need a skilled facilitator --- someone who essentially edits it, so that you have a rational and civil discussion, as opposed to a bitch session.

Jeffres is an emeritus professor of Communication at Cleveland State University, and he has spent many years studying the different strategies neighborhoods use to maintain a sense of community. He even did some early experiments setting up local neighborhood websites, back in the late '90s. He says he's come to the conclusion that Internet discussions, while often useful in keeping people connected, aren't likely to foster a golden age of community activism.

LEO JEFFRES: The people who don't go to the block club meetings are also the people who aren't going to pay attention to it on the web. It's a difficult nut to crack.

But, maybe it’s some consolation that, with all of the internet’s potential to expand horizons, it can also help communities do what sometimes seems to get lost in the march of progress - keep it local.

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