Monday, November 12, 2007

A Neighborhood Web Forum: Nice in Theory, but Impractical and Perhaps Counterproductive in S-town

While it has only been 6 months since the Salemtown web forum got up and running, my belief is that it is an ineffective tool for communicating between neighbors. The web forum--in which registered members post comments, questions, and responses on various subjects based on increasing levels of security--was a great idea in principle, and it started off strong. But over time it fell into disuse.

And for me that disuse became a self-perpetuating cycle of waning interest that fed further disuse. Just browsing the various topics in the web forum index today indicates to me that the web forum is dying. The bulk of the postings occur in May and June right after the web forum stared. The posts begin dropping drastically in July and tail off farther in August. There are only two September posts and the last one occurred on September 9. So, we've gone two months now without a single post to Salemtown web forum. It seems to be a shell of what it was intended.

Here are the reasons for the forum's fade in my mind:
  1. Besides those with computer savvy, people are more reliant on e-mail than on web forums for on-line communications. Web forums are an extra step for which busy people do not feel a need.
  2. There are only 25 members; the critical mass of techno-geeks and organizing types needed to make a community web forum operate daily is even smaller. Hence, less of a chance for success.
  3. On-line forums amplify the cascading effect of noncommunication: when people stop posting I stop reading and the chances I might post in the future decrease. That's one less poster for others to read; then others stop reading and visiting to find out if there is anything to read. Thus, the web forum drops off the radar as an important source of information.
  4. General apathy for communication and work with neighbors (true of every medium).
  5. Web forums are rationalized and become a crutch for face-to-face meetings. Then they become a gateway (or backdoor?) toward absence from community.
Number 5 is the counterproductive effect of web forums. I want to expound on that one.

It really does become too easy to be captivated by the technology and to convince ourselves that the on-line community is no different than gathering in the same room (or on the same lawn) face-to-face. And the rationale of convenience kicks in, because why should we ever leave our homes when we can meet on-line?

But so much is lost in interpersonal and nonverbal communications by relying merely on web forums (and on e-mail). There is so much more to see and to hear and to interpret in gatherings intended to define a common purpose that on-line communications are mere shadows of effective conversation, dialogue, and even debate. Those unwritten and unposted dynamics are the lifeblood of groups and organizations. Overused emoticons are a pale and sterile imitation of the bonding and purpose forged in human interaction.

So, my short experience with the Salemtown web forum is that it has not lived up to its promise and I actually judge it to be an obstacle to rather than a tool for facilitating greater community. Perhaps if we had a stronger sense of community and purpose first, then it could have been a significant tool rather than the empty shell it has become.

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