Social-media-powered neighbors in New York & Nairobi

As I watch the definition of “citizen” evolve during our planet’s social media shift, I’m also noticing a social media-fueled expanding sense of what it is to be a neighbor, to identify with a place, and to belong. Here are two examples, one in Nairobi, the other in New York City:

1. => community awareness, identity, voice

Nairobi’s Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, has 1 million residents. The taxi driver who drove me to the airport on my way home told me he lived there for a year when he moved to Nairobi from southern Kenya because he was on his own and penniless and living there cost him $4 a month (he told me now earns about $650 a month driving the cab but has a wife, who can’t find a job, and three children for whose education he’s paying too).

We usually think about offline life driving social expression online (that’s what the social media research shows about US use), but Kibera is an example of how the Internet is driving social cohesion in offline life. In one of our digital citizenship workshops at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi last week, David Miles of the London- and Washington-based NGO Family Online Safety Institute cited a UNICEF-funded project called Map Kibera as an example of digital citizenship in practice in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Zambia, based on the findings of FOSI’s GRID (Global [Net safety] Resource & Information Directory).

“Prior to 2009, the slum did not appear on any maps,” Dave said. So the Map Kibera project trained 13 young Kibera residents to use GPS devices to map facilities such as toilets, street lighting, and clinics. In the ongoing project, the young people are also trained in other tech skills that ready them for future employment. “As well as mapping physical features to benefit their community, the mapping project identifies safe areas and crime hotspots, including hot spots of child abuse,” Dave reported. That allows residents to stay away for their own safety and the project’s funders to work with the authorities to locate and deal with crimes.

The project team found that large numbers of residents own mobile phones, and they’re used in a variety of ways [as is happening so much in India, Indonesia, etc.], including text alerts of trouble and crowd-sourcing information from residents on all topics.” The info is published on the Voice of Kibera Web site). In its 2011 report, UNICEF, one of the project’s funding agencies, said that, “through this process, young people gain new awareness about their surroundings, empowering them to amplify their voices on critical issues.” [US Ambassador Jonathan Scott Grayson told my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid that Kenyans spend 43% of their disposable income on mobile phones – see Larry’s piece in the San Jose Mercury News.]

2. Social media making Brooklyn-style social cohesion sustainable

There have been a lot of news stories about former classmates and long-lost friends finding each other in social network sites. Now there’s one about a kind of neighborhood reclamation on Facebook. The New York Times reports that a lot has changed “in parts of Brooklyn like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Flatbush and Carroll Gardens, where zoning laws, gentrification and shifting demographics have rapidly transformed the streets,” and people who grew up in those neighborhoods and miss the way they were back then, are finding and hanging out with their old neighbors in Facebook.

For example, a neighborhood page for Flatbush in Brooklyn “was begun in February 2010, titled ‘I Loved Being a Kid in Flatbush, Brooklyn During the 70s and 80s!!!!’ It drew more than 10,000 members in its first eight months, before a flood of requests to swap memories from earlier decades prompted the creation of a new page, simply called ‘I Loved Being a Kids in Flatbush’.” The Times adds that there’s now a group of middle-aged women called the Fabulous Flatbush Five who, when anybody in the larger group dies, attend the funeral together.

So, thanks to social media, we have at least two things happening with the notion of neighborhood: history being documented in real time by people who were there and a sustained very real sense of belonging in a virtual space that’s rooted in offline life.

Connection + intention = social change, economic development

So in Kibera, we’re seeing digitally enabled community awareness lead to a sense of belonging, which in turn can lead to empowerment, then social action (hopefully toward tenants’ rights) and resident-driven (and user-driven) community improvement. In Brooklyn, we’re seeing neighborhoods of the past reconstituted and relived online.

These got me thinking about what a powerful mix connection and intention is – what they bring to community on all levels (local, tribal, national, cultural), and how they may be changing “citizenship.” Both young people and East Africa are all about rapid, focused development, and when we combine that strong intention or sense of purpose with the connections, informed active engagement, and global collective action that technology now allows, we have citizenship on a whole new level, including the global one, and it will be fascinating to watch where it takes us all.

Related links

* “From the place that wasn’t there” : Through the Map Kibera project, young people are growing a sense of community (and maybe eventually tenant rights) in what used to be a blank spot on the map (representing 1 million people).
* Don’t miss “Regynnah’s Story” from 22-year-old Kibera resident, mapper, and community educator Regynnah Awino in UNICEF’s 2011 report.
* In addition to Kibera’s, there are 1.5 million other slum dwellers in Nairobi in some 200 other settlements, according to’s fact sheet (links thanks to my fellow panelist Dave Miles of helps young people taking a gap year between secondary school and university go to Nairobi and do aid work in Kibera.

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