Local social capital heading online?

'These days the buzz is all about flipping online interactions into real-world meetings'

Ever since the Internet entered the social consciousness there have been countless attempts to create online communities. The Well, for instance was an early San Francisco-based community started in 1985 which even inspired a few 'cyber universe' novels.

But these days the buzz is all about flipping online interactions into real-world meetings. Thus Meetup.com, Upcoming.com promote "meat space" (as the geeks call it) networking.

But attempts at taking the idea into the true mainstream of society, and particularly around the idea of your local neighbourhood, have had mixed results. The BBC Action Network, has (last time I looked) yet to ignite the political consciousness of the suburbs. UpMyStreet.com started well but is now more about checking your neighbours' house prices.

A recent addition to the pantheon of 'local' sites is MyNeighbourhoods.co.uk (nominated for an NMA award ) which allows you to lookup local information based on your postcode and contact local community members (so long as they too have signed up).

It's yet another valiant attempt to re-ignite the social capital we once had locally - and I mean pre-industrially - now that social mobility and the atomisation of the family means many of us rarely live in the same place for very long.

But there is a continuing problem with these ideas. Namely the existence of vertical niche online communities where people interact around one topic and then later on work out they are living closer to eachother.

At one end of the spectrum are sites like Mylocalbands.com, a US site which allows fans of a genre of pop music to find eachother on a Google map. Useful for all those sullen Emo fans stuck in Ohio who can't find eachother. In the UK we even now have a site for people who like taking pictures of their pet dog, Doggysnaps.com.

Socially networking with your neighbours online about a common interest - from music, to dogs, to whatever - seems closer to where all this is heading, as opposed to networking just because you happen to live near someone...

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.