Online communities offer a new way to meet the neighbours

From reporting crime to finding lost keys, websites help residents keep in touch
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The Independent Online

recent report said that more than 80 per cent of UK homeowners would like to join online community forums as a way of reducing crime in their area. The report from Zurich Insurance highlighted the fact that, despite the impression that we live in an "everyone for themselves" society, most people still value a sense of community and are concerned about their neighbours' wellbeing.

Online neighbourhoods are already a reality in some parts of London - but they are not primarily concerned with crime prevention, more in fostering the sort of community spirit that many feared had died out with the IT revolution.

An excellent example of a successful online forum is that of www.furzedown.net, the community site for Furzedown, south London. Local residents used it recently not only to draw attention to vandalised mosaic tiles in a local park but also to take steps to repair the damage (making use of expert help offered online).

But other issues have exercised them far more in the past few weeks: like the Great Rubber Band Debate.

The offending bands are those left behind by postmen. So many have been dropped that one resident called for a campaign to force the Post Office to pick them up and re-use them.

One man announced he was spearheading the campaign by e-mailing the Post Office. And others joined in. Meanwhile, suggestions started to roll in for the use of rubber bands, including "American skipping" (a complex game involving three girls and a huge loop of rubber bands). One family said it was collecting bands to make a rubber ball to kick about on the common.

Then someone dared to suggest that the rubber band debate was becoming trivial. One correspondent supplying the lyrics to David Bowie's song "Rubber Band" probably didn't help matters.

The original complainer said: "I've been quite taken aback - not to mention a little wounded - by the facetiousness, even vitriol of some of the response." At the same time she had a dig at her own husband who had disagreed with her - online - on the issue.

The forum's moderator (and creator), Vijay Bhuchar, reassured her: "You made some important points in this thread and you felt strongly enough to keep pursuing it. That is how change comes about - it starts with one person keeping at it until something is done. So, everyone - if you feel strongly about any issue with a local slant, consider coming out with it in the forum."

By this time, several residents had taken up the idea of making large rubber balls - one person suggesting rolling a huge ball all the way back to the Post Office. But the action that found most favour was to post rubber band balls back to the Post Office - without a stamp.

More common uses of the forum are finding or recommending a cleaner, au pair, carpenter or plumber, or to advertise community events. And there is no shortage of free goods on offer - from an office chair to a complete set of swings.

Not all community websites seem so well used. When I left a post on the forum for Muswell Hill, north London (www.muswell-hill.com), I had just one response from a local - telling me it would be a miracle if I got a response. The prediction proved accurate and several weeks later my e-mail remained the latest addition to the site.

But the long-established site for Forest Hill, south-east London (www. foresthill.org.uk), is at the opposite end of the spectrum, with loads of messages coming in and being filtered into a wide range of topics. Recently these included: fairly robust discussions over local election results, almost surreal musings on the area's celebrity residents, and a local rock history strand revealing such gems as the fact that The Who played locally as a support act when they were known as the Detours.

The Fitzhugh Grove estate, south-west London, is the latest community likely to see the benefits of setting up its own website. Until now, residents on this former council estate with five tower blocks - and a mix of council tenants and private owners - have felt isolated in their dealings with the council over such issues as service charges and communal heating bills.

Mike, a resident who works in publishing, has designed a residents' association site that will go online in the next few weeks and he sees it as a major turning point for the estate:

"It will be like a local magazine online. Everyone will be able to send e-mails to the site and there will be links to people at the council. It will be a way of empowering the residents and enable them to put up a united front."

'It gives a feeling of belonging'

ÒThe forum is like conversations you have with your neighbour. YouÕre either moaning about the fact that the postman drops too many rubber bands, or discussing school selection, and your childÕs education, and everything in between. For someone like me, who is not a fierce networker, itÕs more socially acceptable than listening in to peopleÕs conversations on the street.Ó
Ð Mark Stroud

ÒI was called a life-saver when I posted about the lost keys I found in the park. Within a day, they had been claimed.Ó
Ð David Turner

ÒWe had two beautifully wrapped presents dropped at our house with names we did not know. Asking in the street drew a blank but they were tracked down via the website because they were friends of residents who had been staying here.Ó
Ð Jenny Weinstein

ÒPeople have used the site to build initiatives of benefit to the whole community. It gives you a feeling of belonging.Ó
Ð Christine Christie

"As a working mother of two, I drop in and out of the site and find it great for getting reliable tradesmen, recycling unwanted household goods and finding out what is happening."


Helen Knee

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