I've had a few conversations and thoughts lately (beginning with the London Neighbourhoods Online [LDN10] event last month) about diversity and representation on local websites. I just wanted to capture them for the time being.
The founders I've spoken to about this have set their sites up with a vague sense of social purpose but no explicit intention to promote community cohesion. The sites don’t set out to be or claim to be democratically representative or culturally representative or accountable.
Those we've looked at in our London study are clearly dominated by people who are relatively affluent, educated and empowered. These are the people who put energy into helping the site grow, contributing and generating social capital (vaguely defined) and civic involvement to sometimes enviable levels.
Around them and among them live clusters of less affluent people, renters rather than owners perhaps, people from minority groups and with English as a second language, perhaps people who may not have home internet access but who use telecoms shops in the high street to call family in other countries and access websites in their own language.
Meanwhile, let's acknowledge that participation on some of these neighbourhood sites can call for a high level of confidence and assertiveness, which may be closely related to levels of literacy. These are text-based environments and the currents are fast-flowing.
Some of our respondents expressed bald criticism of the lack of representativeness, while others suggested that perhaps the sites could make more effort to be inclusive. For example, one wrote:
‘Seems to be for white middle aged people, basically.’
’I would imagine the website doesnt attract a contribution from a full range of social demographic backgrounds to reflect the actual community as a whole’
‘doesn't seem to represent the diversity of the local community, particularly ethnically and in terms of social class.’
This is more about cultural capital than social capital. Most of the cultures in question have strong family-based networks re-inforced locally. The easy and insensitive English way of detaching ourselves from our elders, leaving them to live out their years in isolation or in homes, is going to seem strange at best to people from Bengali, Turkish or Kurdish cultures for instance. They also network around their foodstores, their cafes and hairdressers, cultural centres and places of worship. So it could be argued that these groups have less need for a structured form of neighbourhood network. This assumption may be misguided. And if it is accurate, there is still a danger in it, which I'll come to.
The logic of the technology allows local ethnic minority groups to set up their own space within or alongside the dominant site. At least one of the sites has tried to encourage this, and it's hardly surprising that so far it has not happened.
We should also recognise that pseudonymity on local forums permits a hidden diversity. We were given a striking example of this at LDN10. On the internet, no-one knows you're a black single-mother who drives a bus. However, that gives no visibility to diverse perspectives.
The point that bothers me is this. Neighbourhood websites are set to increase and to have greater influence. Our survey of council officers and elected members shows recognition within councils that they see online forums as ideal for identifying issues of concern to residents. Local politics gets discussed by those elderly Cypriot men in their local cafe, and it gets discussed on local online forums; but in terms of potential influence over what happens, there's no comparison.
There will come a time when there is a pronounced tension between the legitimate but unsystematic influence of local sites on the one hand, and their lack of representation of diversity on the other. It's worth trying to get in front of that I think.