How the internet improves local community life

Brian Jenner, editor of Paddington's on local web sites

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In his essay, Something Lacking in our Civil Administrations, Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French essayist, mentioned that his father had wished to set up a place in our cities where those who were in need of anything could go and have their requirements registered by an official. For example, ‘I want to sell some pearls.’, ‘I want to buy some pearls’, ‘So and so wants to make a group to travel to Paris’, ‘So and so wants a workman.’

Montaigne said that this means of mutual advertising would benefit our public dealings, ‘at every turn there are bargains seeking each other but, because they cannot find each other, men are left in extreme want.’ It’s not as if nobody has followed up Montaigne’s idea over the last four centuries. The classified section has been around for some time. But the problem requires new and imaginative solutions for the 21st century.

It was this passage which was very much in my mind when I set up a local website for my area in London. The project began with an idea at a party in April 1999. Like many people in London, I was curious who the neighbours were, but wasn’t quite sure how to approach them. So together with my flatmates I organized a ‘flat crawl’. We put notes through our upstairs and downstairs neighbours’ doors: come and have a look round our place and have a drink and then we’ll move on to your place.

It was a great success. Afterwards we agreed it would be useful to use email to stay in touch. This could be backed up by a residents’ website. Shared knowledge would be a valuable. Had their rent been put up? Did the have problems with cockroaches? Who dumped that washing machine in the hallway?

Another innovation, which made it possible to contemplate creating something along the lines described by Montaigne, was the arrival of the digital camera. As a journalist I had been an editor of a company internal newsletter. When digital photography emerged it became possible to liven up publications with photos, which helped to promote esprit de corps. It was easy to transfer this to a neighbourhood. Take digital photos of the newspaper vendor, the local councillor and the chairman of the residents’ association and write them up on the website. In theory it was possible to create a local ‘celebrity culture’ which would engage readers.

My areas, Paddington and Bayswater, are the sort of places that need to generate some community. The neighbourhood was cut in two by the Westway in 1970. Since the opening of the Heathrow Express the impersonal forces of globalization are felt particularly acutely. It’s bedsit land, one writer described it as a ‘world of transience, deracination, shifting focus, un-Londonness.’ I found it unnerving the way that businesses would open and close, with no explanation. A restaurant would catch fire and you would never know the cause. A local website could bring people together and interpret the changing landscape.

In 1999 William Mitchell, the MIT urban theorist, published a book called ‘E-topias’. His thesis being that under cyberspace's influence, the city will change in the same radical way it did under the influence of postal systems, electricity and cars. Rather than turning us into ‘laptop-toting, cell-phoning nomads,’ broadband networks would help to create more vigorous local community life.

After running my website for about a year, I was contacted by other websites for Central London areas. It was appropriate that we became a community ourselves and, when we got together, it was amazing to discover that individuals, with similar motivations, had set up sites in places like the South Bank (, Camden (, West Hampstead ( and Chiswick (

They were not backed by funding. They were spontaneously set up by people who saw the potential of the internet and grasped the possibilities of using a community building tool on a real, often broken, geographical community. We formed London Neighbourhoods Online, with a website Ironically, because the sites are created by locals for locals, they reflect the idiosyncracies and agendas of each area.

The value of these sites is not that they make much money, they don’t. However they are creating new structures and experiences. has pioneered a car-sharing scheme with local schools to reduce the number of vehicles on the school run. runs regular dating evenings. is an area bisected by five different boroughs; the site helps to deal with the disorientation that creates. has had its triumphs. Almost a thousand people turned out to the table-top sale in Westbourne Terrace in 2000 which we promoted. 180 Newspad readers got to drink free cocktails in the Steam bar of the Hilton London Paddington in 2002 on the night before it opened. When one resident spotted that and office block was on fire one evening in August last year, an email flash went out immediately. A few dozen residents put their shoes on and went out to watch: over 2000 people looked at the pictures.

These schemes and experiences are groundbreaking. Local websites in cities can cover an area with a circumference of less than five hundred metres. People can walk round the block and see that what has been reported has actually happened. The ability to communicate in this way creates the opportunity for authentic ‘communal’ urban experiences. ‘Virtual’ community enriches ‘real’ community. New media can help people reconnect with the places they live in.
Aristotle's Politics recommends a city that is small enough to be held together by pedestrian circulation, for the citizens to know each other, and for public life to take place in the central agora or meeting place. The local website is a ‘virtual’ agora. Not only can some of the exchanges described by Montaigne take place on the sites, but also the villages that make up London can rediscover their own identities through their own media.

William Mitchell picked up on the danger of a digital division. That is wealthy communities could use technology to prosper whilst failing disconnected estates could spiral downwards. Great contrasts, for example, exist in W2 and W9 between estates on the Harrow Road and the luxury gated developments in the Paddington Basin.

Local websites can make small contributions to resolving these problems. If a cleaner can find work close to home through effective local advertising, it saves travelling across London. We can do articles like ’10 things to do on the Harrow Road’ encouraging the wealthy south of the Westway to visit and spend money on north of the Westway. People with a stake in the local area usually have a desire to publish uncomfortable truths, often countering the cant spouted by the council and property developers.

Paddington’s vast transient population needs information to make the most of the area. It is very diverse with Swedish, Russian, Arabic and Greek communities. Every two weeks an email from Newspad arrives in the inboxes of representatives of all of these groups. The bullet-point email lists jobs, events and things to do, it announces new businesses, records closures of old businesses, reviews restaurants and may criticize a local politician or record a sighting of a celebrity.

An email is an infinitesimal unit of energy. It can be forwarded to neighbours, circulated around companies and be pinpointed from anywhere around the globe by powerful search engines. Londoners tend to plough their own furrow, shutting out things that distract them. The email can be a spark that ignites a ‘community’ transaction: a visit to a new club, an offer to volunteer, a ‘I saw you on Newspad’ when buying a morning paper.

The American academic Robert Putnam in his book, ‘Bowling Alone’ pointed to a great decline of common life in our societies. Politicians are seeking to reverse the trend, which accentuates the problems of family breakdown, single parenthood, care of the elderly and political disengagement. There are no simple answers. Individuals can only really find their own way. Putnam ends his book ‘Bowling Alone’ by recalling Henry Ward Beecher’s society-building advice from a century ago—‘multiply picnics’ – organize informal gatherings which bring people together.

Most of us want a solution here and now. At least by promoting things on a local scale there is hope, as Montaigne’s father envisaged, that people who need each other will find each other. began with an indoor picnic and now has five hundred visitors a day and 1000 subscribers. New media technology provides an inexpensive way of publishing the invitations, it’s up to all of us to bring something to the picnic.

August 9, 2004