According to the just released Neighbors Online report from Pew Internet and American Life, 27% of American adult Internet users – or 20% of adults overall – use digital tools to talk to their neighbors and keep informed about community issues."

In summary, this 27% does the following locally online:

  • 14% read a blog dealing with community issues at least once in the last year (while the frequency of visits wasn’t measured in this survey, 1/3 of general blog readers check blogs each day)
  • 13% exchanged emails with neighbors about community issues 
  • 7% say they belong to a community e-mail list – this equates to about 10 million American adults connected most days with their neighbors online!
  • 6% communicated with neighbors by text messaging on cell phones
  • 5% joined a social network site group connected to community issues (like Ning and Facebook)
  • 3% followed neighbors using Twitter

Aaron Smith, the report author, in a private exchange noted to me that 2/3 of respondents only did one of these items. This bolsters my view that the “there there” very local spaces online is almost a natural monopoly – so making a unified online space available via multiple technologies is essential to reach more people.

The Inclusion Challenge

My experience is that the vast majority of “organic” local online places started by passionate volunteers serve middle and upper income communities – urban homeowners. The people who know about neighbors forums love them based on the feedback we’ve received about forums on my organization's website,

First, some good news about neighborhood online use as it relates to inclusion:

  • Whites and Blacks participate equally at 8% of Internet users
  • Urban participation is 10% and suburban isn’t far behind at 7%
  • Women participate at 9%, men at 5% 
  • With the community blog numbers, both young adults (16%) and African-Americans (18%) Internet users have read a blog with community issues at least once in the last year compared to 14% overall.

And here's some numbers on the local digital divide:

  • Only 2% of those with household incomes under $30,000 are on a neighborhood e-mail list, still only 3% up to $49,000 while between $50-75,000 it is 7% and over $75,000 it is a whopping 15%
  • Only 3% of Hispanics (both English and Spanish Speaking) are on a neighborhood e-mail list – while they don’t measure Asians or immigrants specifically, our guess is that the percent would be even lower – our efforts target the highly East African Cedar Riverside neighborhood and the plurality ~40% Southeast Asian (Hmong) with African-American (20%) and White (20%) Frogtown neighborhood)
  • Only 2% of rural residents belong to a neighborhood e-mail list (while terminology may have been a factor here, we’ve learned a lot from our Rural Voices effort to launch 4 community forums in rural communities and would like the opportunity to invest more in this area – in fact we’ve recently submitted small grant proposals to bring the majority Native American and also lower income Cass Lake Leech Lake forum into our Inclusive Social Media effort which will put a simple one hour a day Community Outreach and Information Leader on the ground)

Next Steps?

Here are some rough thoughts about the Pew Study as it relates to's goals:

  1. Inclusion Matters – As an organization, needs to focus on bring these powerful online community building opportunities to all – especially the people and communities being left behind. We need more partners and funders to make this happen in the next phase of our Inclusive Social Media effort in 2011 and beyond. Interested in helping? Contact us. In the near term, we need to find resources to work with the vibrant Powderhorn Park Neighbors Forum to build on their expressed interest in recruiting more Latino participation. They have had some bi-lingual postings, but the community in looking for ways to build more connections as they confront in part a summer of youth/gang related violence.
  2. A Good Directory Look-up is Needed – Most people don’t know about online community spaces (I think). If they did far more would join. We need to create a technology/format agnostic directory with geographic and map based look-ups for these two-way local online communities. We need to build on the work of Placeblogger and the UK-based GroupsNearYou site which isn’t actively being developed.
  3. Neighbors Online Week – With a good directory, we can then promote such sites nationally/globally. I want the President of the United States to be able to say (like the White House did with the launch of Serve.Gov), go to X site, connect with your neighbors – across the political spectrum – and build your community.
  4. Move the Field – OK, so while we’d love to have many more people start a forum with us, most of you will do your own thing. It is human nature. As part of our inclusion-oriented Participation 3.0 initiative we’ve convened dozens of local “hosts” for peer-to-peer exchange on Locals Online. Let’s make it hundreds, share effective practices and lessons, and inspire thousands of new “hosts” to start or effective grow local online spaces that work. Based on the Pew numbers, we estimate that there could be 30,000 neighborhood e-mails list hosts for example. They are almost all working in isolation. Time to connect!
  5. Open Source? – I think there is a need to connect nearest neighbors online and wonder what we could do collaboratively with interested developers.

Closing Remarks

If the Internet was first about going to the world, then connecting privately with friends and family via social networking. The revolution is finally coming home to everyday community life. We don’t want the Internet to replace a face-to-face conversation over the back fence, we want it to make those real connections among neighbors possible for everyone in a busy modern era where getting to know your neighbors is extremely difficult. We don’t want the hyped location-based mobile technology to be viewed as the way to connect with your existing friends because you are surrounded by uninteresting strangers. We’d rather use technology to have fewer strangers starting from where you live everyday. In short, meeting your neighbors online might just be the best opportunity to connect a nation in public life and counter those intent on pulling us apart with online partisanship and political diatribe masked as online interaction.

A version of this article was originally published on If you use online tools to build local community, please join other practitioners at the Locals Online forum here

Teaser image courtesy of dpicker on Flickr.

Steve Clift


Steve Clift

Steven Clift is a founder of E-Democracy.Org in 1994 and served as Board Chair through 2008. He is an online strategist on the use of the Internet in democracy, governance,