Technology offers new ways for neighbors to talk and gossip

Technology offers new ways for neighbors to talk and gossip

January 20th, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment
Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

In the past couple of weeks, folks in St. Elmo have chatted about a wandering peahen, a desire for empty Quaker Oats boxes, whether anyone has heard gunshots and a dresser and toaster oven offered first-come, first-served.

In Ridgeside, residents have discussed what to do with two stray cats, whether the city will powerwash slippery sidewalks, and the fact the new city ordinances and resolutions are posted on its website.

None of these conversations have been face-to-face.

While you can't borrow a cup of sugar through a Facebook chat, social networking, email groups and other technologies have become primary tools for 21st-century neighborhood communication.

Local neighborhood leaders say technology probably hasn't supplanted the proverbial chat over the back fence, but it does have advantages for advertising meetings, letting residents know about crime in their neighborhoods, finding lost pets, keeping tabs on vacant properties, and promoting social activities such as yard sales and giveaways.

And yes, even a certain amount of gossip also takes place.

"It's been huge," Rebekah Marr, a former president of the St. Elmo Neighborhood Association, says of her neighborhood's email list.

The 1,200-home neighborhood has an email list of some 800 names and a moderated list-serve that has been in use for longer than the six years Marr has lived there. Lost and found pets, event announcements and -- especially -- the exchange of names for home repairs are among other topics on the email flow, she says.

"We're all fixing our houses," Marr says.

A St. Elmo Facebook page is newer and used mostly for neighborhood news, she says.

On Missionary Ridge, with technology such as email and Facebook buzzing, there are "multiple points of contact" for residents, says Chuck Elmes, who recently rotated off a three-year membership on the board of directors of the Missionary Ridge Neighborhood Association.

In many local neighborhoods, including Missionary Ridge, senior citizens aren't as tech-savvy as younger people, though, so block leaders -- the go-to person on a street for information -- automated calling systems, newsletters and neighbor-to-neighbor communication still are important, residents say.

Many of the seniors on Missionary Ridge prefer to be called with information by their block captain "in order not to be left out," Elmes says.

Candice Poole, mayor of Ridgeside, a small, incorporated community on the east side of Missionary Ridge and surrounded by the city of Chattanooga, says there may even be such a thing as too much communication through technology.

"As an elected official," she says, "I find it cumbersome to have so many avenues of communication to cover all these bases. It's a lot. It's made it a more complicated world."

Yet, Poole says, the good outweighs the bad. Ridgeside, she says, maintains a website, a Facebook page and a Google Group. She says she primarily uses Facebook and the Google Group for communication with city residents.

"It's good to get out mass communication fast," Poole says. "It's [also] very effective for a neighborhood watch."

On the other hand, she says, "I might say something to you at midnight [through social media] that I would never say face to face. We don't filter ourselves sufficiently. Sometimes, we say things that we might regret."

Back in the summer, for instance, some Ridgeside residents got into a back-and-forth spat about an old, blind dog pooping in someone's yard and the messages, at times, became testy.

Charlotte Freeman, co-president of the Stuart Heights Neighborhood Association, says her community's Facebook site has more than 110 friends, about one-fifth of the people who live in the hilly streets bordered by Hixson Pike, Lupton Drive and Folts Circle.

"If we get 550 households on [the site,] it would be a wonderful communications [tool]," she says. "It's mostly used by younger people. But as more and more people use smartphones, we'll pick up some more."

The combination of shrubbery, weeds, woods and steep driveways over the relatively large Stuart Heights geographic area "is not conducive to a lot of back-and-forth" visiting, she says.

Stuart Heights, says Freeman, also uses a voluntary email list and hand-delivered newsletters, the latter "much to the consternation of the post office."

The combination of methods has improved communication, she says, but has not replaced the interaction among neighbors or "not yet anyway."

"You know the people around you," Freeman says, "but not the whole neighborhood."

When Elmes was a board member of the Missionary Ridge Neighborhood Association, he also operated its Facebook page, website and automated calling system, RidgePhone. The calling system, he says, was designed to be a security notification system but is often used for announcements.

Missionary Ridge and Glenwood also both use block programs, in which block captains or leaders keep an eye on the homes and neighbors on their block.

In Glenwood, says block leader Thomas Diller, one of his jobs is to be the "go-to person for the block." The information flows in both directions -- from the block leader to the 1,100 neighborhood residents and from residents back to the block leaders.

"If something's happening, if a house is abandoned, if they need help with XYZ, it helps us keep tabs and monitor things. It helps makes sure our neighborhood stays healthy," he says.

Block leaders come together on occasion for lunch and informational programs on such topics as recycling or neighborhood safety. After those meetings, they pass on information to the residents on their blocks.

In addition, he says, every year Glenwood block leaders send out flyers to residents, asking ask if they need help with their house or yard. Often, he says, churches, organizations and other community service programs offer to help with residents who can't help themselves, and the block captains are able to pass on the names.

"It helps make an impact," he says. "It's getting things to the people that actual need them."

Websites, neighborhood leaders say, tend to be less direct communication documents and more information repositories.

Poole says the town's charter, ordinances and an annual calendar are Ridgeside website staples, while Diller says Glenwood's website "tends to be kind of like an online brochure for the city at large."

While the future may provide even more technological advances in neighborhood communication, it's not likely to eliminate face-to-face interaction.

"It may have [reduced it] some," Poole says, "but our [community] swimming pool is such a magnet. And so many of our folks walk and have their regular walking routine."

There are also community club meetings, dinners among neighbors and women's gatherings, she says.

"We're active socially," Poole says, "and we care enough about our neighbors that we're engaging them."