Create an online presence for your offline community
Connecting with your neighbors face-to-face isn’t always possible, so some neighborhoods are creating ways to connect online, too. See how one community is bridging the face-time gap and providing alternate options for residents to work toward social good together.
Want to try this?
There may be some people who want to join you.
Caryn Solly, resident of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital apartment complex
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
What they did
In 2009, Caryn Solly decided she wanted a better way to connect with her neighbors in the historic Brooklyn Jewish Hospital apartment complex in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Caryn has a background in online organizing, and was interested in finding ways to connect people’s online lives with their real life neighbors. “I knew that if a Facebook group for the complex existed, I would use it. So I decided I should just do it.”
So Caryn started a group, and as it gained members, she saw an increase in “neighborliness” and met more people in her community. Members of the group used it to ask for help (borrowing a cup of sugar; watching a pet), share information about the neighborhood and management company (giving restaurant recommendations; discussing a heating issue in the building), and organize around local issues (building a community garden; addressing neighborhood gun violence.)
How you can do it:
Decide how to define your offline community.
The Brooklyn Jewish Hospital complex is made up of five big apartment buildings all owned by the same management company. People in these buildings not only share a neighborhood, but also a lot of services. For Caryn, it was easy to decide who to include, but your situation might be less clear-cut: should you include just your building or your whole block? Your entire village or just a part of it? Think this through before launching online.
Create a main goal for the group.
Caryn’s main goal was to increase neighborliness and meet more people in her community; therefore, she focused the group on the hyper-local issues facing them as tenants. For your group, decide what you’d like to do, beyond connect. Maybe there’s a charity walk going through your neighborhood, or a park nearby that needs cleaning up—you could get to know your neighbors by making a difference together.
Select an online medium.
For this initiative, Facebook was a natural choice. Caryn was trying to bring together a lot of disconnected people, so she figured using Facebook would create a low barrier to entry because many people already use it. Additionally, most people use their real identities and photos on Facebook, so it would add a layer of real connection (and accountability) to the group. Caryn suggests you look to what platforms people in your community are already using. “You have to figure out where your people are online, and get in front of them,” she says.
Select your privacy settings.
Caryn initially made her group totally open and public so anyone could find it, join, and post. But over the years the group grew, and Caryn and the other administrators decided to close it so people had to request to join or be added by another member. This also meant that only members of the group could post comments. When creating your group, think about how privacy settings will affect the way you communicate and build community. If you already know all the people you want to invite, it might make sense to be a closed group. But if you’re trying to attract many disconnected people, keeping it public will make it easier for them to join and engage.
Give your group a searchable name.
Caryn thought a “clever” name would make the group harder for people to find online; thus the “Neighbors of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital” Facebook group was born. When naming your group, use words people are apt to search for organically.
Set some ground rules.
Caryn wanted this to be a welcoming group for everyone, so she established standards of conduct that she asked all members to adhere to. The number one rule was no name-calling—people could respectfully disagree with each other, but as neighbors she didn't want things to turn ugly with personal attacks. She also asked that people only use the group to discuss topics closely related to themselves, the buildings, or the immediate surrounding area of Brooklyn. She also reminded people that this was an open group, so asked that they not share personal information like phone numbers and addresses in the public forum (if they needed to share that information with someone, they could use the direct messaging feature instead). Lastly, Caryn asserted that she and the other administrators would have final say when it came to moderating the discussions and blocking users. Based on your community, what ground rules do you need to ensure that you create a welcoming and effective online environment?
Get the word out in every way possible.
“It was hard to get the word out,” says Caryn. “I started a lot of awkward conversations in the elevator.” Word of mouth was really the biggest driver in growing the group and this is where having an easily searchable name came in handy. Caryn would talk up neighbors all the time, let them know about the group, and tell them how to search for it on Facebook. She also hung fliers in all the buildings. She says if she were doing this again today, she would have added QR codes to the flyers so that people could easily link to the group right from the flyer using their smartphones. When you start getting the word out about your group, think of all the places you could reach potential members: local coffee shops, school bulletin boards, newsletters and blogs that serve your community, etc.
Model good behavior.
As the group got going, Caryn made a conscious effort to model the types of conversations she hoped to have by posting often to the group. This set a tone and gave new members a sense of the kind of community they were joining. As you start your group, lead the conversations and be enthusiastic and generous with your new online community.
Spend time moderating the group.
Caryn estimates that she spent a few hours a week moderating. She, along with the other administrators she brought on, would delete conversations that were not directly related to the neighborhood or were too promotional or spammy. This prevented the group from filling up with cat videos and links to events happening far outside the neighborhood. Each group will have a different standard for moderation, but decide where you draw the line and stick to those standards to guide the conversation.
Find ways to bring the group together offline and take action!
Once her group started to take off, Caryn began to see members using it to connect around local issues. One member was very connected to the local community board, and posted meeting recaps and encouraged others to attend. Another used the group to raise money and support for an anti-gun violence art project she was doing in the neighborhood. In 2010, a member used the group to build a small community park in an empty lot next to the complex. She rallied volunteers to help with lot clean up, got connected to a local nursery that donated plants, and brought neighbors together for a barbecue when the park was finally finished. Without the group, these people might never have interacted with so many of their neighbors or taken action on their good intentions for their community. The takeaway here: once you’ve established an online group, think of ways you can meet offline to make an impact in your neighborhood.
Since the group launched in 2009, it’s grown to include almost 1,000 members. But beyond numbers, it provides a sense of place and community. Caryn says, “Knowing that there are people you can reach out to, even for small things, is really meaningful. It makes people feel connected and cared for. And when you feel less anonymous, you pay more attention to your community and it makes it harder to ignore something that’s going on in your neighborhood.”
Your group will be a labor of love. It may take a lot of work to get it off the ground and keep it running smoothly. But by connecting both online and offline, you and your community can do great things together.