Just How Livable are these Online Communities?

Increasingly in recent years, we’ve seen examples of social media having a profound impact on important moments in history. For example, Facebook was instrumental in igniting Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square. It was also famously influential in helping to secure the election of America’s 44th president. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, Twitter reached a record of more than 4,000 tweets per second sharing the news. Each day we hear about the latest and greatest tool in social media and the wave of social media entrepreneurship is understandable given its power to quickly and affordably reach target audiences. But what are the potential unforeseen impacts for community and livability? One of the latest got us thinking.

The new app is called Home Elephant. It’s a private online community designed to help neighborhood residents meet and connect—and it is proving a popular forum. Like any online platform, it’s a handy tool for exchanging information on the day’s weather, recycling schedules, or who’s hosting the annual block party. Unlike something like, say Match.com, which is designed to connect individuals who might otherwise never cross paths, it is designed to connect people who live less than a block from each other. We’re all for anything that meaningfully engages and connects people, but what does all this mean for building real community? Do we have to go online to borrow a cup of sugar from our neighbors? No, not exactly. But is that where we're headed? Think about it right now. When someone you don't recognize comes to your door, what's your first thought? Not "Can Johnny come out and play?" but "What are they selling?" And yet, perhaps we're not all so cynical. Perhaps that's why Home Elephant exists and is catching on? We hope it will increase face to face contact and trust in our neighbors.

In addition to the fact that almost any product or service can be ordered directly to one’s home, most of the social media forums leave us very unsocial indeed. Instead of connecting face to face, we run to the safety of online platforms. Online media tools have given us the power to never leave our homes. We think we can lead relatively "full" lives without ever interacting with a single human being. However, in our modern, convenient world inundated with information, updates from Facebook “friends,” and targeted social media marketing—many people actually feel more disconnected.  Exhibits A and B. MIT professor, Sherry Turkle recently published a book entitled, Alone Together, in which she explores how social media creates virtual relationships that, without much depth, can leave us feeling more isolated than ever.

Don’t get us wrong. We think social media is great. If you’re reading this, you know it’s true. It’s a fun and handy tool—but that’s just it. It’s a tool, not a solution, for bringing people together and building community. The value of lively public spaces and healthy cities means nothing if we never even leave our homes. All we’re saying is that it’s okay to tweet/friend/HomeElephant your neighbor—just think about knocking on their door once in a while too.