I had heard about i-neighbors, a newly launched FREE online community site that connects people to neighbors in their local community. It has been set up by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is a social networking site based on local geography rather than affinity which is what members of most virtual communities share. This is also an attempt at exploiting both the online and offline networking possibilities for the community members.
When I first came across i-neighbors, it struck me as a very interesting idea worth replicating in the Indian context, but I hadn't thought more deeply about it. Listening to a talk on Social Capital yesterday, provided me with a totally new perspective on i-neighbours and the potential impact of a site like that.
A press release at the MIT web site describes the idea behind i-neighbors in more detail.
The web site, which can create a homepage and e-mail list for every neighborhood in the United States and Canada, provides community groups with a system to organize local events and share information on local services, and connects neighbors with similar interests. The easy-to-use services include a local directory, a shared photo album, neighborhood messaging, opinion polling, and a carpool system.Who is going to be the first to attempt this in the Indian context?
The I-Neighbors project grew out of three years of research by MIT Assistant Professor of Sociology Keith Hampton, initiated in response to concerns that Americans have experienced a decline in neighborhood and community participation over the past 30 years. "Much research has focused on the ability of the Internet to connect people over long distances, but we wanted to focus specifically on how the Internet is used locally," said Hampton. "We are hopeful that I-Neighbors will lead to neighborhoods that are safer, better informed, have a stronger sense of community and are better equipped to deal with local problems."
To study how the Internet impacts local community life, Hampton and his students studied the residents of four Boston area neighborhoods over two years. Within a year the study found measurable increases in the number of local social ties and the sense of community in two of the three areas where I-Neighbors web sites and messaging were introduced. The changes included the formation of new neighborhood social ties and higher levels of community participation, both on and off the Internet.
Neighbors also were less likely to rely on visible social characteristics, such as age, the presence of children, and physical proximity when forming new ties. Residents used I-Neighbors to learn about their neighbors' backgrounds and interests, relying less on visual details learned about neighbors from watching them on the street. The average user met nine new neighbors in person and talked to two new neighbors on the telephone.
"The Internet service that had the strongest impact on the neighborhoods was a simple e-mail list. Residents used it as a virtual street corner," said Hampton. "The neighborhood e-mail list provided a forum for residents to exchange everything from information on home repairs to opinions about local elections. Elected officials used the e-mail list to report back to their constituents, and residents used the list to organize face-to-face community meetings with officials, as well as the occasional barbeque and house party."