It might be hard to believe in today's mobile-enabled world, but landlines were once the primary option when it came to telephones. And prior to residences having private lines, community lines where neighbors shared a single telephone and party lines where four, eight, or even twelve neighbors shared a telephone were the norm. The latter arrangement in particular offered little privacy as neighbors could listen in on each other's conversations since the lines were open. Neighborhood busybodies knew who was going to the doctor (and why), who would be late for dinner, who might be arguing with family—basically it was the source for all the town news.
The arrangement was far from equitable since being able to make a call depended on the line being available which might mean a confrontation with a line hog. Line hogs were just that: people who used the telephone excessively. This shared arrangement could be problematic for the individual and the community. Not only was privacy compromised but the safety of the community could be compromised as well. How did you report a fire or call a doctor? And what were the implications if help couldn't be raised in time? Or word couldn't be passed along that there was trouble?
The party line is gone for the most part (there are still places in the world where a shared community phone is the norm), but social media plays a similar role. Today, when terrible things happen—which, unfortunately, seems to be often in our time—it’s not uncommon for people to turn to online social outlets. They can be a quick means of getting information from people who are on-the-ground or have an in or simply have already done the research. And they're a quick way to pass along news. Social media has changed the way we access and process local news. It empowers individuals to share what they know, which can be both good and bad as people may sometimes share (and continue to share) inaccurate information. We know Facebook and Twitter can help serve the public's information needs during times of crisis. But these media also serve an important role for local offline communities during non-critical times as well, and can provide the foundational basis that bind these communities.
Neighborhood community groups on Facebook can provide a glimpse into the nature of neighborhoods, revealing concerns, political views, supported merchants, and more. Based on what residents share, neighborhood groups can provide a look at life within a community. S and I recently joined the ranks of parenthood, and as a part of my nesting experience, I joined not just my local neighborhood group, but the groups of surrounding towns as well. I get news from five towns in my Facebook feed, as well as general county announcements. These groups all seem to be used in similar ways:
- People request recommendations
- People provide recommendations
- People report traffic disturbances
- People report criminal activity
- People share information about school closures/events
- People use it as a organization center for meet-ups
While men are not barred from membership into these groups, the majority of the members are women and they constitute the most active participants. These pages represent a vested interest in the neighborhood. Participants have the power to shape the culture of the neighborhood. Their recommendations can determine what businesses succeed in the community, traffic reports can determine what roadways are traveled and when, and information about school closures/events can help other parents plan. In addition, as several members are married to members of the police or fire department, they have access to scanners that make them privy to information about circling helicopters or potential criminal activity. They have used this information to alert the larger group, whose members respond with increased vigilance or commentary on the state of the neighborhood.
The flow of information on these pages is reminiscent of the party line system. There is one line of communication and it's open to everyone. Anyone can hop on the line, and some people do spend an inordinate amount of time sharing and commenting, and requesting information. These people aren't called out for their activity, but with time, and as the quality of their participation becomes questionable, they're gradually ignored. Privacy is willingly compromised on these pages as members share their general addresses when reporting perceived criminal threats, and their preferences when they share or comment on recommendations. This information reveals the things people fear and throe perspective on why to support specific businesses, which in turn can reveal other biases.
The openness of the party line gave it a bad reputation, but it also did much to cement communities—and alienate specific members. The persistence of the types of interactions seen in online neighborhood groups as the continuum of communicative technology unfolds suggests their vitality to communities overall. And the type of information that people choose to focus on sharing suggests elements that are important to communities overall: safety, travel, and quality of life issues. The consistency suggests that there may be core elements of community that are enduring because they are necessary for groups to establish larger social bonds.
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