Monday, October 04, 2004

craigslist: the reluctant online community

News Flash -- skepticism rules the latest opinion polls. Most of you think that the Personal Social Network Coordinator position I quoted recently from craigslist is a prank. I'll admit you are probably right about that.

Speaking of craigslist, there is an enlightening chapter about craigslist in Robert Putnam's Better Together, co-authored with Lewis Feldstein and Don Cohen. These authors, all authorities on community building, looked across America for the most encouraging and enlightening case studies they could find. They included many virtual communities in their research, but chose only one for their book: craigslist (specficially in San Francisco, where it is ubiquitous).

A funny thing about craigslist is that its creator, Craig Newmark, never envisioned it as a means of building community. He created a jobs and housing website with a philosophy of open access and member empowerment. Newmark explains what happened from there: "People started telling me that they felt connected in some kind of community sense. I used to be doctrinaire about definitions and I didn't feel it was a community site, but I eventually said, if people feel connected, it must be a community."

I love this. It speaks to a zen-ness of community building, that it happens best when we stop trying to make it happen. The authors contrast the success of craigslist with the story of the WELL, a successful precursor to craigslist that went downhill after going commercial.

I recommend the rest of Better Together as well, for instructive case studies of effective communities in America. The authors have assembled a diverse set of examples, which includes:
  • Branch Libraries: The heartbeat of a community,
  • UPS: Diversity and cohesion, and
  • Portland, OR: A positive epidemic of civic engagement

My favorite of all the chapters is the first -- Valley Interfaith: "The most dangerous thing we do is talk to our neighbors." Valley Interfaith is a chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a federation dedicated to local political empowerment whose Iron Rule is "Never do anything for anybody that they can do for themselves." The IAF taps latent community leaders from the ranks of the disenfranchised, and awakens their sense of empowerment without pushing any overarching agenda. The resulting chain reaction of neighbors talking can really turn the tables on their elected representatives. Politicians in these communities are held to a high standard of stewardship for the interests of their constituents.

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