Using the Internet to meet your neighbors

The New York Times takes a look at Nextdoor.com, a website that privately allows neighbors to meet each other and interact online:

Nextdoor’s site provides a house-by-house map of neighbors who are members — although members can choose not to have their names attached to their addresses — as well as a forum for posting items of general interest; classified listings for buying, selling or giving away things; and a database for neighbor-recommended local services.

The company, which introduced its service last October, says it has set up more than 2,000 such neighborhoods in the United States, each containing about 500 to 750 households. These mostly follow boundaries defined by Maponics, a supplier of geographic data…

Neighborhood identity has not been destroyed by the Internet. Robert J. Sampson, a sociology professor at Harvard, says: “There’s a common misreading that technology inevitably leads to the decline of the local community. I don’t believe that. Technology can be harnessed to facilitate local interactions.”…

In his new book, “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect,” Professor Sampson argues that worries about the supposed loss of community in cities are nothing new. In 1938, for example, the sociologist Louis Wirth described “anonymous” and “superficial” social relations as essential elements of urbanism. But Professor Sampson says that this ignores the way that a city was, and remains, ordered by distinctive neighborhoods — what he calls “the enduring significance of place.”

Sampson’s comments give me an idea (which I’m sure others have already discovered): the Internet itself is a place/space that is built upon existing places. Another way to think about this is that the Internet is another social layer that both interacts with existing places but also has its own places and rules of social conduct. People can interact more with those who live near them and/or they can choose to interact with people around the world (that were previously unavailable to them). This is not the same as places like “Second Life” – it seemed to me that a lot of academics were really interested in this idea as they were curious to see how people would handle being in a new realm they could help create – as programs like Facebook or Nextdoor don’t let people completely escape from their surroundings and may just enhance existing acquaintances and relationships. Going forward, should we think of Facebook as a new kind of extended neighborhood?

Sampson’s ideas also are an interesting reply to questions like whether Facebook is making us lonely. Sampson is not the only sociologist who is arguing that the Internet does not necessarily isolate people.

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