Streetbank: a virtual route to loving thy neighbour (and lending him your ladder)
Friday 30 September 2011By:
- Rob Francis
As OPM prepares for the final of our Local Social Digital party conference fringe events this Sunday, hosted with FutureGov and On Road Media, Rob Francis talks to the founder of one website that’s bringing thousands of people closer to their neighbours.
Policy makers have long recognised the value of neighbourliness in communities. People who interact with their neighbours tend to be more satisfied with where they live, are more trusting in each other, are more collectively ‘resilient’ when times get tough. They are even healthier and safer. It is clear that neighbourliness is good for people, good for places and good for the public purse.
There are still a lot of people who would see digital media as the antithesis of all this, encouraging us to stay indoors and talk to our online friends, instead of having cups of tea or organising the next street party with people who live just over the road. But increasingly, we can point to projects that are proving the opposite – that far from eroding our ‘real life’ interactions, networks and friendships with people around us, social media is helping people to create and extend them.
Lots of those examples relate to local campaigns and activism, but not all. The Streetbank website, for instance, seeks to bring neighbours together through simple acts of generosity, from giving away an old book or lending someone your ladder. It can feel like a hybrid between Freecycle, where people offer and seek out particular items online without money changing hands, and time-banking, where individuals (usually in a specific locality) ‘deposit’ their time or labour and are thereby entitled to ‘withdraw’ an equal amount from fellow members.
A non-profit making website run by volunteers, the idea for Streetbank came about when its founder, Sam Stephens, was cycling down his street and saw a neighbour using hedge trimmers. ‘I thought I’d like to borrow those – and that I might have things I could lend to him in return – but we didn’t quite have that relationship, that familiarity, where I felt I could just go up to him and ask.’ The website that Sam set up as a result is a virtual mechanism for providing those introductions. It’s less daunting than knocking on someone’s door and putting them on the spot, yet quickly translates into personal interactions which will then often be sustained – at the very least through a friendly wave in the street. Although anyone can sign up anywhere in the world, by entering your postcode you’re plugged into a very local network of people.
So what do we know about the 10,000 members who have joined so far? 9,000 of them are UK-based, 4 – 5,000 of those are London-based, and half of these are in Hammersmith & Fulham alone. Not a great deal is known about the profile of all these users, but Sam thinks it’s currently reaching a relatively middle-class, middle-aged audience.
‘We’d love it to reach people across society, in places all over the country. West London is where we started it and where its taken off first, but you only need about 50 people to sign up within a square mile and you’ve got the critical mass for it to go on gathering its own momentum.’
Unlike Freecycle, which could be described as ‘Ebay without the money’, Streetbank requires you to put something into the pot – however small, whether for loan or for keeps – when you first join. This is key to the reciprocal ethos of the site, but Sam is aware that it can put some people off. ‘We find that quite a lot of people half-join, but then can’t think of anything to share so don’t go through with it.’ Perhaps this is less a reflection of their selfishness, and more a reflection of their anxiety that they don’t have anything sufficiently interesting to offer. Some would argue its easier to give things away when you’re wealthy and have a lot of stuff in the first place, and that the current membership reflects that, but Sam feels the barriers are cultural rather than material. ‘Everyone has a book or a CD they don’t really want anymore, and that’s enough. People shouldn’t feel they have to make a grand gesture like giving away a computer or a piano’.
Of course there may be some people who would lose out if Streetbank went global in the manner of Facebook. The big DIY retailers, for instance, would probably quite like us all to buy our own hedge trimmers rather than share one with our neighbours, and charities won’t be pleased if we all start giving things away to each other, rather than giving them to charity shops to sell on. But it does have huge potential for oiling the wheels of neighbourly interaction in the way that councils know is so valuable in building social bonds. And what’s attractive about Streetbank is that it doesn’t require everyone to start organising community events or orchestrating local campaigns. Instead, it relies on easy, everyday instances of offering help or giving things away.
For any councils inspired to commission their own local versions of the Streetbank website – beware reinventing the wheel. It would be much cheaper and easier to encourage your residents (perhaps starting with your own staff) to use the one that already exists. It won’t have the council logo on it, but is that such a bad thing?