Civic Networking: The Next Next Thing?

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This is the first in a series of guest posts by thought leaders in the local arena. We asked where local-social media might go in 2011.

By Tom Grubisich
Some Cassandras are forecasting the end of social networking.  I will keep my ear next to my computer for the sound of some 600 million people migrating to the next big thing, but don’t think Facebook faces doomsday any time soon.  Or Foursquare, Yelp or Gowalla, to name just a few of the proliferating social networks that have claimed a piece of Web space.  But I do think social networking is on the threshold of an important evolution that will both affirm its basic value but also take it into new and ever more beneficial directions.  Shaping this transformation are economic, technological and societal forces that are propelling people toward a path with many entry points but one destination: to act together and to do so smarter and locally.

I would call the evolution “civic networking.”  The term has been around for a while, but where it was once a gooey nice-to-have, now it’s taking on a practical urgency.  Behind this change are a new set of sobering economic circumstances that are extending across the American landscape to just about every suburban cul-de-sac, especially the ones with FORECLOSURE SALE signs on the front lawn.  For decades, through booms and busts, local governments everywhere and of all sizes have been on what amounted to automatic pilot.  There were, to be sure, occasional budgetary and other eruptions, but very quickly things bounced back to business as usual – more service funded by higher property values in an upward curve that never bent down.

No more.  The bulbous bell curve of the pre-digital era has returned with a vengeance.  Property values – the major source of funding for local government – are still depressed as much as 30% and more from 2008.  This stubborn gap had triggered budget slashing that means fewer police officers and teachers, scaled-back community outreach and mental health programs and the non-filling of the proverbial potholes.  But the cutbacks are only half the story.  The other half is that localities, strapped as they are, face even more responsibilities as power devolves from Washington and the states to cities, counties, towns, villages and even community associations.  In California, new Gov. Jerry Brown’s spending plan typifies the gathering trend.  As the Washington Post points out:

“Brown…is seeking to fundamentally restructure state government, shifting a host of responsibilities, from incarcerating low-level offenders to providing foster care, to local governments.”

You would think that the new social networking sites, especially the location-based ones, would be crackling with a new act-locally awareness

But are local communities ready for all these new challenges?  You would think that the new social networking sites, especially the location-based ones, would be crackling with a new act-locally awareness. But here’s what I find on Foursquare in my former Zip Code in Reston, VA, from a member strolling about in Reston Town Center:

“Don’t walk by the Chipotle fans by the rear entrance. They blow rancid air on you.”

Okay, maybe it’s unfair to be expecting to find a local Cicero holding forth in a  Foursquare Zip, so let’s go to what surely should be a hot spot on Foursquare – District of Columbia Public Schools, a major battleground in school reform.  Nothing.

Okay, okay – again. What about all the local awakenings that various Knight Foundation initiatives are funding or discovering?  Granted, all this activity is promising.  But the indicators, so far, seem to be mostly about user involvement, not what that involvement has achieved.

It’s not as if there haven’t been some tangible civic achievements.  Here’s uber-venture capitalist Fred Wilson describing the slumbering-giant power of Twitter – in which Wilson’s Union Square Ventures was an initial investor — in getting city hall to cut through normal bureaucratic miasma and listen to constituents.  A single tweet about a pothole, Wilson found, means much more than a phone call or letter because city hall knows that tweet will be seen by other people. In other words, one tweet could end up being the equivalent of a fuming crowd at a public meeting. says it’s a social network that can make a difference, and CEO Steven Johnson promotes his company’s mission with passion.’s got something like 60,000 community sites, but when I go to one I know something about, like Reston, this is what I find:

“Foods you love at Trader’s Joe’s that got discontinued? [old]

“Chowhound’s latest » All of Chowhound January11, 2011

Not true. Just came from the TJ’s in Lynnwood/Edmonds, WA and asked specifically. Plenty on the shelves and no plans to discontinue, per Manager.”

It’s useful to know what foods have been or not discontinued at the local Trader Joe’s.  But in this new act-smarter era, will that knowledge improve your kids’ education, help to develop a better transportation mix and maybe push the value of your home to a level where your mortgage is no longer under water?

What’s missing in even the most publicly disposed social network sites are tools that will encourage residents to channel their desire to socialize into civic action that will get the community on a firm path for doing more with less.  It’s one thing to get the pothole fixed fast, but what about the community’s entire transportation ecology?  In this greening era, is it too tilted toward the single-occupant, gasoline-powered vehicle?  Why aren’t there bike lanes on thoroughfares leading to local job or commerce centers?  One tweet, or even a chorus, isn’t likely to help move these longer-term issues to resolution.

What’s missing in even the most publicly disposed social network sites are tools that will encourage residents to channel their desire to socialize into civic action that will get the community on a firm path for doing more with less

The sometimes deaf city hall feels that a big part of the problem lies with the media.  According to a survey of 313 municipal officials by the National League of Cities:

  • 39% see the media as an obstacle to public engagement.
  • Less than 10% think the media involves people in deliberation and problem


  • 47% find the media to be poor contributors to constructive public debate.

Looking at all these problems in this new act-local era, the team I’m working with is developing a  community-based site that we hope will help push civic networking to a new level  where page views and even unique visitors are not enough.

Our network, called, will start community ratings based on a patented Livability Index.  The ratings will be an algorithmic mashup of open data covering 18 to 20 categories of livability and fact-based feedback from Local Experts and other users.

There are, of course, all kinds of existing ratings available on the Internet and in print, but they are  usually a “top 10” – “Best Cities for 2010,” “Best Cities for Small Families,” Best Cities for Singles” — and compiled behind closed doors by a handful of people who, for  all their knowledge, are basically making it up.

We don’t pretend LoveToLiveIn will achieve statistically correct outcomes, but by balancing data and feedback from the community, we think we’ll be as close to the elusive truth as it’s reasonably possible to get.

But the ratings are only the first step.  We want to create a platform where the community can, in addition to celebrating its successes, fix where it’s failing.

To make that happen, our site will be a meeting ground of the citizens and their elected and appointed leaders.  That’s where social networking comes in.  We want LoveToLiveIn to encourage users to “friend” people with the goal of achieving their particular civic goals.  In Reston, that may be untangling the complications that give South Lakes High School an undeservingly low reputation even though its students’ academic performance – looking at all students or by racial and ethnic background – compares favorably with Herndon High School, which also serves Reston.  In the District of Columbia, it may be helping parents in the poorest wards – 8 and 9 – get better schools than former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was able to deliver despite her promises.

The meeting ground of citizens and their leaders won’t work unless the lingua franca is fact-based.  Rants just won’t do it.  Topix has thousands of community forums, but because they’re anonymous and so often controlled by bigots, naysayers and other trolls, they don’t achieve real results.  Our users will identify themselves if they want to speak, and their ratings will hold more weight if they are backed up by facts.

We also believe that to succeed we have to balance the significant with the offbeat.   Communities are a sum total of many things.  To describe Baltimore as a city of 637,000 people living on 80.8 square miles, with an average elevation of 100 feet, wouldn’t be very helpful to even a half-curious tourist.

So, for example, when we compared obesity rates within communities in metro Washington, DC, we, no doubt, will include a heat map showing the density of fast-food restaurants – with a disclaimer that the information is “statistically significant.”

I am sure we will stumble, if not do a total banana flop, as we venture into this largely unknown cyberspace incognita.  We could play it safe, and, say, develop an algorithm to scientifically rank the comparative quality of Starbucks’ Skinny Caramel Macchiatos in communities throughout the U.S.  But in these difficult but perversely hopeful times, we don’t think that’s enough.

The author, who worked at Digital City/AOL, is content director of Local America, which will soon be launching its community-based Website

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