Networks to Neighborhoods

New digital tools aim to help people move beyond status updates to build productive relationships online and off.

I have 10 tabs open in my browser, my smartphone vibrates next to me, and my email is inundated with Gchat messages. Already distracted, I glance at Twitter and Facebook to see what’s going on with the other “friends” in my “social network.” The glut of information gives the voyeur in me immense pleasure, but I realize that my technological promiscuity could be detrimental to my offline relationships.

Leading Internet expert Clay Shirky warns that technology enables superficial interactions, sometimes at the cost of real connections. “The Web is the best medium in history for bringing people together around shared interests,” Shirky said in a Monitor Institute interview. “The problem is that it brings people around a shared interest at a very low cost so that the commitment can also be minimal. In almost every other sphere of our lives the low cost of communications is fabulous, but for generating community, the low cost of communication can turn out to be damaging rather than elevating.”

This low barrier to communication also allows for unfiltered rapid responses and, in the case of commercial interests, drives us to connect solely for the sake of analytics like audience growth or website traffic (which may or may not translate into greater impact). Some observers argue that online communities should encourage interacting at a slower pace, because knee-jerk reactions and snarky comments hinder productive discussion and debate, whereas the exchange of knowledge, skills, and resources can benefit everyone. These sentiments are giving rise to a “slow Internet” movement (akin to slow food), in which online communities can foster new types of behavior that go beyond that initial “connection” through long-form writing, collaborative tools, and even offline sharing.

Brooklyn-based startup Hey, Neighbor! aims to connect its members with their neighbors, hyperlocalizing the ability to find resources in the borough (which may be just next door). The platform, still in beta, is an online attempt to restore the way neighbors have connected offline for years by sending notifications to members’ cell phones when someone in the neighborhood needs a favor, a good, or a service. Through the platform you could get help moving your couch, borrow that screwdriver you need, or offer to pick up something at the store for that guy on the first floor while you are running errands. Hey, Neighbor! is a simple idea that aims to capitalize on the momentum of the shared economy enjoyed over the past few years by sites like Rentalic.com, NeighborGoods.net, and Airbnb.com.

Hey, Neighbor! borrows the idea of “microactions” from another successful online platform that builds offline partnerships, If We Ran the World. Launched by advertising agency veteran Cindy Gallop, the Web-based platform matches altruistic individuals with socially responsible corporations to turn good intentions into actions and tangible results. Although this idea is not new to issue-led groups, Gallop believes that the way that it is being implemented through public and private partnerships is unique.

First, you answer the prompt, “If I ran the world, I would ____,” with a change you’d like to see in society. It could be anything from teaching youth how to produce radio documentaries to starting a park cleanup program in your neighborhood. The platform will connect you with organizations that are already doing that work and need resources or volunteers to complete specific tasks. In this way you can join forces with like-minded people to tackle a social challenge. This is a strong example of how online communities can slow down the pace of interactions to enable quality relationships.

Quora, the online community touted by some as the “next Twitter,” aims to create more thoughtful content than 140 characters will allow. The Q&A site essentially provides a platform for users to ask questions of the community, such as “What are the best methods to launch a successful startup?” or “How can I publish my magazine on an iPad?” Members write, edit, and organize pages to create reliable spaces for knowledge. Quora prohibits brands, companies, or organizations from joining, to prevent marketers from submitting “targeted” answers and keep the corporate bias to a minimum.

One of Quora’s strong suits is rewarding users who reveal their identities, rather than choosing to remain anonymous. Being completely transparent about your experience is an open invitation to the community to seek you out as an expert. The best-known commentators on the platform are getting the most traction as people seek their opinions. The community can also vote on answers, deeming them useful or not (similar to the Yelp model). If a response fails to provide meaningful value to the community, it isn’t featured, so people generally behave well—and keep snarky comments to themselves.

Another place where quality trumps quantity is on knowledge-sharing platforms like Skillshare.com. Based on the notion that everyone is a teacher, not just those who stand at the head of a classroom, Skillshare aims to be a community marketplace where people can learn anything from anyone. The site offers information on where to find courses on everything from mastering Photoshop to baking a chocolate cake. Skillshare enables users to find others who cluster around the same hobby or passion offline; it’s like a Craigslist for DIY education and creative curricula.

We are just beginning to see the deepening of our connections past a click, follow, or friend confirmation. These platforms are ultimately still in beta and haven’t reached their plateau, but that makes them ripe for richer humanization. Howard Rheingold, former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and the writer who coined the term “virtual community,” shared his optimism for those actively shaping platforms in the image of successful offline systems in a Monitor Institute interview: “The way you explore this space is the way life happens,” he wrote. “There are a lot of experiments and most of them die. The ones that work find an advantage in the environment. They suddenly make energy out of light, and that makes everything possible.”

Kristina Loring is frog’s content and community manager, and the senior editor of design mind. Her writing regularly appears in this magazine and she has been a contributor for GOOD.

Remy Labesque is an industrial designer in frog’s San Francisco studio. His illustrations appear regularly in this magazine.