Virtual Connections That Help Build Real Community Bonds

July 27, 2015 | By

Lost Chihuahuas, free chairs, car thefts, and, of course, block party alerts are all part and parcel of hyperlocal social media — be it listservs, email lists, or blogs — that help shape a sense of community in neighborhoods across the nation.

“It helps us get to know our neighbors, and that’s super important to me,” says Michele Sullivan, referring to the informal email list she started in her Vienna, Virginia, neighborhood 17 years ago. It’s grown from 14 households to about 150. “It helps make us feel included and connected.”

So what is the role of social media in creating a sense of community? Is it a conduit for real-life connection and interaction — which are so basic for a sense of community? Or do these platforms themselves constitute a sense of community?

“Social media is not the be-all and end-all,” says Carrie Brown, social journalism director at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, “but it can help facilitate a sense of community.”

It’s the connection among people — the feeling that we are in this together and part of something bigger than ourselves — that creates a sense of community that is so essential for human health and happiness, says Karyn Hall, a Houston-based psychologist.

“It’s an ancient truth, and it’s still relevant. Without feeling connected, we fail to thrive,” says Hall. “It’s basic to our lives to feel connected.”

Sometimes in a very practical way.

In Houston, for example, an informal flood-relief effort recently sprung up on Facebook to help connect flood victims with real-life resources such as food and furniture.

“The community helped each other because there was no disaster relief,” Hall says.

On a less urgent but still informative level, neighborhood-based social media can provide a good example of what a community is all about.

“You can quickly get a sense of what matters to people, what they are proud of, and what they are up to,” Brown says.

And occasionally, what makes them angry, she adds.

Brown used a variety of social media — Nextdoor, Facebook, blogs, and Trulia — when she recently moved from Memphis to Jersey City.

Christal Goetz, a real estate agent in Washington, D.C., agrees that social media is a great tool for newcomers who want to get a feel for a particular neighborhood and to help them ultimately answer: “Could I feel at home here?”

“I can’t legally answer things like, ‘Does this neighborhood have good schools? Is it safe?’” Goetz says. “So I refer them to a blog or link where they can access objective information about crime and schools.”

Beyond that, prospective buyers want to get a feel for a neighborhood to make sure it fits their sense of home. Young buyers, for example, who are looking for a condo in the D.C. market are interested in being able to walk to bars, shops, and work, Goetz says.

And they want to be close to their tribe — other young people.

A tribe, says Hall, is a group of people among whom we feel connected and accepted, giving us a sense of home and safety. When we feel that connection and acceptance, chemicals are released in the brain that make us feel happy, safe, and calm.

Who wouldn’t want that for their neighborhood?

Sullivan certainly does and hopes to expand her email list to a website where neighbors can interact and share information more easily.

In the meantime, she will continue to send out alerts about everything from lost dogs to proposed expressway expansions. Her main motivation?

“I just really like connecting people,” sometimes with each other and sometimes with their lost dogs, she says. “And If I can connect a family with a new baby with other new parents, that might help them go from being isolated and alone to feeling connected and supported.”

Now that sounds like a place to call home.

Gabriella Boston is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other publications.

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