There is evidence that the pandemic has encouraged communities to engage more with their neighbourhoods. People have come out to smile at their neighbours as they applaud frontline workers. They have shopped locally rather than drive to a shopping centre. They have spent more time reading the digital version of their local paper for a clearer understanding of the local implications of this national crisis.
Yet the idea of feeling more a part of a community competes with the divisive influence of social media. There is a growing societal malaise where self-identity with one online group or another guides what is believed and what is disbelieved, who can be trusted and who can not. This risks creating local conflict.
Is this the time when a neighbourhood brand – that overriding sense of collective values given credibility through their physical day-to-day demonstration – becomes more important and more influential than any time since WWII? Could hyperlocal anecdotes be the antidote to vacuous social media?
If that is the case, then branding neighbourhoods in the digital age of the algorithm-enhanced individual has a challenge. What are those things that can help make communities feel that they have more in common with each other than divide them? Perhaps local good news stories might fit the bill? Unfortunately, research has shown that people, despite saying that they prefer good news from the media, when assessed they select negative stories. The context of war or pandemic or civil strife has been shown to reduce levels of suicide and enhance community spirit. Not an easy formula for policy makers.
So, step up to the plate climate change! Here is one war in which we are all engaged and which we must win. The level of concern about meeting carbon reduction targets has risen during the pandemic, but still we see cities struggling to come to terms with the scale of the solution that is needed.
Could it be, therefore, that what is needed to mobilise the legions of neighbourhood communities to form ranks and take on the fight against climate change, is actually some carefully targeted local investment into the neighbourhoods within which influential communities sit silently? If such investment was channelled into local low carbon initiatives, it would shine a positive light across neighbourhoods, enhancing community spirit and identity, and showing to the outside world their success. Promote this on social media, and it creates a recipe for advertisers attention. In the way that social media works, when these stories are ‘liked’ then similar content is put in front of individuals and their contacts – good news stories about their own and similar neighbourhoods.
If this theory stands up to real-life scrutiny, then what is happening here is neighbourhood branding. It sounds awful, but actually this could be a force for good. It might also give social media a better name.
© David Arscott January 2021