In the spring I was fortunate to meet Tim Erickson of e-democracy during his Bristol visit. One thing he said about building online communities stuck in my mind, namely the momentum has to come from the bottom up, not be imposed from outside or the top down.
This bottom up approach is happening already in Bristol, if you know where to look.
One place you could have looked was the Chelsea Inn in Easton one evening in the spring of 2002. You may have spotted 4 ageing hippies having an animated discussion over their beers. What they were plotting was an online forum for Easton and, of all the alternatives available, setting up a Yahoo Group seemed the best: so that’s what we did. It’s still going. Amazingly it’s thriving and membership is approaching 110. Indeed it’s now the second largest Bristol-based Yahoo group. Local campaigns (e.g. the planned Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory redevelopment) have admittedly helped to swell membership, but nevertheless the forum has for 4 years provided a means of maintaining interest in or sounding off about local matters. And it has served as a way of staying in touch and advertising local events, not to mention sharing expertise and information on a wide range of subjects, including dealing with local and national government (e.g. reporting flytipping to the council or lobbying the local MP). Any problems have been few and far between: trolls are an extinct species, while the life expectancy of spammers can be measured in minutes, despite our moderator now working mostly in China.
The other local example concerns the Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory redevelopment in Greenbank mentioned above that is currently out to public consultation. Needless to say, local residents were alarmed when plans were announced for 100+ new homes from a volume housebuilder on their doorsteps. Their reaction was twofold: firstly, to use the Easton Yahoo Group to stay in touch, circulate correspondence, plan meetings and float ideas and secondly to collate all their expertise and resources on their own website using wiki technology and webspace donated by Bristol Wireless. The resulting site is now a valuable resource for other communities facing similar unwelcome changes, while in return Greenbank residents have learnt valuable skills in editing and producing web content using wikis, with the more technically gifted willingly passing on their skills, time and expertise. While the outcome of the planning application is still undecided, the local Greenbank community has definitely achieved some ‘planning gain’.
Given that being a deprived inner city area, Easton is generally regarded as a basket case by most official criteria, it’s very encouraging to see the community taking the initiative in this way. What’s next from BS5? It definitely promises to be interesting.