More going online to go local

Although neighborhood coffee shops, salons and public meetings remain the primary way people stay informed about community issues, a growing percentage of Americans are turning to the World Wide Web. According to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life project, 20 percent of your neighbors are using online tools to talk amongst themselves and keep abreast of the latest community issues.

The report found that 22% of all adults have signed up to receive alerts about local issues, like weather warnings, traffic or road conditions, crime alerts and school events. Most of these alerts come via cell phone text message or email, the report said. But perhaps more revealing is the report’s finding that 27% of American Internet users (20% of adults overall) use online tools to communicate with each other about their neighborhoods.

Steven Clift, director of – a nonprofit organization that works to develop civic engagement and online community building strategies – called the report an “excellent start,” in an interview yesterday.

“The report puts numbers to what we’ve instinctively thought about neighborhood activity online and I think it will certainly move the field of discussion along.”

The survey also confirmed, Mr. Clift said, the need for inclusive efforts to help bring lower-income neighborhoods into the discussion. The Pew report found that while 7% of all internet users belong to a neighborhood group email list, listserv or online discussion forum, those who make less than $50,000 annually are far less likely to be involved at a neighborhood level. Only 3 percent of internet users who make less than 50,000 per year and 2 percent of users who make less than $30,000 per year said they use online tools to learn and communicate on community issues.

“There’s a big difference between saying low-income is being left out and seeing these numbers, which indicate there is a section of low-income individuals already proselytized to the Internet, but not a part of their neighborhood groups,” Clift noted. Contrast that with those who make $75,000 or more, where 15% of internet users are involved with their neighborhood associations through online tools.

Clift said this report helps highlight the opportunity to include disenfranchised groups, who already use the internet, in public dialog. In a blog post on E-Democracy.Org Clift wrote:

We see the Internet as the most cost-effective “ice breaker” opportunity out there that can create new bridges and sustained bonds. With intervention and resources for real outreach and inclusion, neighbors online will do far more than just reflect existing social capital.