PHILADELPHIA - The Internet can have a positive impact on the strength and growth of a community. Just ask residents of a neighborhood in Savannah, Ga.
It was there, on Nov. 20, that residents using the i-neighbors technology were alerted via e-mail to an incident of an armed robbery of one of their neighbors only moments after it happened. The notification took place faster than the police or news media got the word out.
The i-neighbors Web-based community they were using was developed by Keith Hampton of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. I-neighbors is a free public resource where people find their geographic neighborhoods online and form corresponding digital communities. The project investigates the circumstances where Internet use affords local interactions and facilitates community involvement.
The Nov. 20 incident was widely reported in the local news. But what was not part of the story is the emergence of evidence, uncovered by Hampton, that the Internet can help strengthen the feeling of community in a neighborhood.
Hampton's work is reported in the October 2007 edition of Information, Communication, and Society magazine. In the article, Hampton wrote about the results of a long-term study of neighborhoods where residents used lists of e-mail addresses of their neighbors. The study showed that, in the right context, the Internet can help bridge gaps that exist among neighbors and help foster a feeling of community.
The study was designed to determine if the Internet can be part of everyday neighborhood interactions, and under what circumstances can the Internet facilitate the formation of neighborhood social networks.
"While residents of neighborhoods are by definition physically close, temporal, psychological and territorial barriers often mean that they are not accessible to each other," Hampton said. "This study was designed to determine if, given the right circumstances, the Internet can increase the number of local social ties."
Four Boston-area neighborhoods were selected: two suburb-style communities, one of which was the control group; one apartment complex; and a gated condominium development. Three of the four were given neighborhood e-mail lists and a neighborhood Web site.
Surveys at the outset of the study showed people in suburbs already felt there was a strong sense of community in their neighborhoods and that they felt the strongest desire to make a contribution to the neighborhood. Over the course of several years, it was found that those communities that already expressed a desire for neighborliness and a feeling of contributing to the community were those that were most likely to communicate with each other via the community e-mail network.
"In situations where there is a pre-existing feeling of community, or the need to maintain community connections, the Internet can prove to be more of a uniting factor than previously thought," Hampton said.
More information on the study can be found at www.asc.upenn.edu.