From the local village to the global village and back

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Over the past decades we have seen the world becoming smaller and smaller thanks to new technologies. Location has almost become irrelevant when it comes to communicating, collaborating and connecting with other people. If I want to see someone in a different place, I fire up the video chat. If I want to stay informed of what family and friends around the world are up to, I call them on the phone or tune into Facebook. If I want to know what people in my network find important at this very minute, I look at Twitter. And even in remote areas I can still stay connected using text messaging. Welcome to the ‘Global Village‘.

And yet, it is the nature of our existence that we are (still) physically bound to a location. Through place and proximity we are all automatically part of another world – the ‘Local Village‘. Unlike back in the days though, we do not necessarily depend on the people living next door. We can perfectly survive without our neighbors thanks to all the modern amenities we are surrounded by. Thus, we may live in a local community but that does not mean that we are an active part of it.

In one of his papers, Marcus Foth makes a great point by saying that “a lot of social encounters are based on serendipity and coincidence“. People meet in the hallway, when walking the dog or during other events. Often, conversations on such occasions are limited to a greeting or meaningless trivia. If you don’t have kids that sit in the same class as your neighbor’s kids or do not attend service at the local church, chances are high that you won’t have much of a connection with people living next door. It is fascinating, and depressing at the same time, that we are much better connected with people that we may not even have met in real life than to our next-door neighbors. Thus, the question becomes how we can re-instill a sense of community and belonging in the ‘local village’ that we seem to have lost over the years. Can we find answers by looking at communities and networks of the ‘global village’?

Unlike a network, a community cannot be created. Both online and offline communities draw people with a shared interest, passion, problem in a specific domain together. Foth points out:

[...] place and proximity are insufficient attributes to attract residents to a community network and to sustain it. [...] connectivity per se does not ensure community – and proximity does not ensure neighbourliness.

A great example for solving shared problems is Fix My Street (in the UK), where people report, view, or discuss local problems they’ve found to their local council by simply locating them on a map. The more nagging the problem, the smaller the effort to report it and the bigger the reward, the more successful the system will be. Indeed, the current system is not a proper community. However, one could build a community with profile pages, microblogging functionality, forums, event calendar on top. The site could also become a communication hub not only for the residents but also for the local council to announce news, discuss developments in the neighborhood. Maybe at some point residents will not rely on the council to fix problems but may set up their own initiatives to take things into their own hand and motivate neighbors to help them

Another interesting scenario could be the voting on how parts of the budget of a council are being spent. Councils should involve residents by giving them the opportunity to discuss how much money should go to certain areas and developments in their neighborhood. Not everyone may have time to go to meetings or feel comfortable discussing matters in public. An online platform could considerably extend the reach of offline meetings and inclusion of residents thanks to its convenience.

A third example that is being talked about quite a lot is hyper-local news. People reporting from/about their neighborhood. Robin Hamman, former head of blogging at the BBC and now Headshift colleague, lives in St. Albans (UK) and writes a local blog. By publishing content on the internet, he found other bloggers from St. Albans and they have started meeting offline to discuss among others local matters. He recently wrote a short blog post about it.

Of course, the motivation and means of writing and sustaining a blog might be limited to very few members of a local community. To ensure buy-in from the majority of residents it might be easiest to look for pain points and problems within the local community that people care about. Before one talks about any tools or applications, it is paramount to understand the residents and their needs, backgrounds, computer literacy etc.

That’s what David Barrie does in his proposed high-level project plan for two of his community-building initiatives in Cardiff and Moscow. When I met him about a year ago, we discussed the role social tools could play in bringing residents of different communities together. I am very happy to see his initiative taking shape and will monitor it closely, especially to find out if the different cultures have any considerable impact on strategy, execution and outcome.

The key advice I would give David as he starts the projects is to identify the real motivation and needs of (each) resident of the community during his investigation phase. “Improving flows and exchanges of experiences between people and existing groups” is a noble vision, but unless you have devoted contributors like Robin in you community, the project might be off to a difficult start. I would assume that few people will start blogging or contributing to a wiki to get to know each other better or share experiences. In my opinion there needs to be a direct and easy-to-reach reward or something residents are truly passionate about to get them involved. Identifying that element is paramount. Most of the communication, collaboration and connecting will evolve around solving those problems and will ultimately help to re-instill the sense of a global village into the local village.

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