Everybody Needs Good Neighbours: Building a Social Community
With the massive rise of social networking coinciding with an apparent loss of physical community spirit, New Media Knowledge spoke to one Internet company trying to combine the best of both worlds.
The increasing popularity and influence of social networking sites has moved into the housing authority sphere with the recent launch of Neighbo.com, which aims to improve communication between tenants, leaseholders and housing managers. NMK spoke to the site’s managing director, Paul Fox, to see what the site aimed to achieve and the role social networks can play in bringing communities together.
What's the background to Neighbo.com?
Neighbo.com launched at the end of 2008. It is an online utility that brings people together around their homes, including tenants, leaseholders and housing managers, to achieve common goals, adhere to housing legislation and improve real life experiences. The site originally started in 2007 as a much narrower concept - Link2home.co.uk, a service creating bespoke websites for private sector apartment blocks.
What was the inspiration and how did come about?
The inspiration came from traditional social networks, the Facebooks of this world. Its users discuss issues, trends and ideas with friends and friends of friends all over the world, but were failing to connect with neighbours and their local communities.
Spending time as a consultant in the property management sector showed me that community based issues effecting peoples lives weren’t being communicated efficiently. It was clear there was a massive technological and cultural challenge here – a great opportunity to develop a service to improve hyper local communication with a housing management function at its heart.
How does Neighbo.com 'work'?
Neighbo.com provides both free and subscription-based communities. We work very closely with the management teams responsible for running the homes of our members. For our communities to be effective there must always be a management team involved – housing associations or a managing agent. This way residents can be confident their ideas and requests can be actioned. The management teams also help with security, as they approve all online applications to join our private communities.
Just like real life, all Neighbo.com communities exist within a wider collective group. This means our residents in neighbouring estates can work together in their own private groups but can also choose to discuss common issues with their neighbours across the way, all within their public neighbourhood groups.
How long was the beta phase, what tests were undertaken and where?
In many ways Neighbo.com is in its second beta phase. We learnt a lot about our market with our first online offering Link2home.co.uk. Neighbo.com has been in beta since last October. The beta phase will continue while we work with 60 online communities, in both the public and private sector across the UK, to improve our management and community building tools and refine our user interface. We have also conducted research across three housing estates in London, to learn more about tenants’ attitudes to online services, social networks and their housing management teams.
What's in it for management companies and tenants alike?
Neighbo.com empowers and facilitates resident action, improving communication with councils and managing agents, to improve living conditions and community life. It also helps providers of social housing contribute to the environmental, social and economic well being of the areas in which the housing is situated.
Private sector management companies, registered social landlords and resident management companies can all gain secure and instant communication with their residents through Neighbo.com. We enable them to achieve greater knowledge and understanding of life within the properties they manage, which helps them improve the quality of their management services. This also enables them to meet many of the requirements as set out in the Tenants Act, which state that tenants should be involved in the management of their homes.
Residents can also ask each other for help, report problems to management, promote local events and meetings and vote on important issues within a safe online environment. All applications to join private groups are received and approved by the management of the property housing estate.
How can social networking be used to rebuild trust which Neighbo.com says has been lost?
Building strong local communities empowers residents to take action to improve community life. And with what promises to be one of the toughest years ahead, strong relationships with our neighbours, colleagues and close friends has become even more necessary.
Local social networking sites, such as Neighbo.com, unite communities, both on and offline, to achieve common goals leading to improvements in their real everyday lives.
With the increasing trend of connecting virtual strangers anywhere in the world via the Internet, it is imperative that we remember how essential it is to maintain connections at a local level.
How is it being marketed within the housing developments in which it has been trialed and how can those without Internet connectivity get involved?
We work closely with housing management teams to promote our online communities. This is simply done using good old-fashioned letters and posters. Residents can also find us online and request the creation of a free online community for their apartment block or estate. We then contact their housing or property manager to get them on board.
Neighbo.com does not replace existing management services or real life community meetings, but facilitates organisation and community development. This means that those who cannot get online do not miss out. We encourage housing managers to provide online terminals for residents to use in their housing office and we will soon be trailing a service whereby Internet users partner with non-users to assist them and encourage social inclusion.
How do you see social networks developing in the future?
The recent recommendations provided by Lord Carter in the interim Digital Britain report are sure to bring great opportunities for social networking and society.
Providing broadband access for all means that whole communities will have the opportunity to collaborate online. The rise in popularity of online social networks has already enabled users to connect with friends and family all over the world at any time. More than just creating 'virtual' friendships, access to broadband will build meaningful communities on an international and local level.
The key to implementing these guidelines is to empower communities by making available the tools to bring about change. Accessible broadband is a positive step towards improving communication and meaningful social networks which are managed properly and will allow communities to establish clear common goals and provide the means to impact real life neighbourhoods.