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April 11, 2011, 4 p.m.

Film shoots to farmers markets: Users respond to Everyblock’s community-focused redesign

Late last month, Everyblock launched an overhaul of its site — its “first major redesign,” and one “driven by the feedback we’ve been getting over the past year.” The revamp marked a significant shift, not just in the site’s user interface, but also in its mission and strategy — from the focus on data-gathering and -dissemination Everyblock stressed when it launched back in 2008 into something more like a news-driven community portal. As Adrian Holovaty, the site’s founder, explained in a blog post announcing Everyblock’s new look:

EveryBlock historically has been a “news feed for your block,” basically a one-way funnel of information: you give us your address, we give you a daily email with what’s happened near you recently. There’s a solid and growing audience for this, but we’ve realized there’s a much bigger potential here. Simply put, there’s no great way to communicate with your neighbors online.

Holovaty wants to provide that vehicle. And in the neighborhoods where Everyblock is active, it looks like some community members, at least, are jumping onboard. In fact, Holovaty says: “It’s been close to universal praise from people. It’s just been amazing.” And much of that community-level affirmation, he believes, comes from the fact that the redesigned site fills an important niche — the rich space between database and social network.

Part of the thinking for the redesign comes from a user survey Everyblock conducted in the fall of 2010. Though the survey was based on self-reported information, Everyblock’s community manager, Becca Martin, told me, it still revealed some meaningful data about the site’s users. The typical Everyblocker is “a concerned resident,” Martin says — someone interested in a neighborhood because she, you know, lives in it. “A good portion are parents”; and “we also saw that a good portion of our users are homeowners.” And the majority of them — unsurprisingly, given the parents/homeowner info — are older than 35. (Though “we do have a good number who are below 35, as well,” Martin notes.)

The “concerned resident” finding was key to Everyblock’s redesign, which emphasizes the encountering of not just information about a neighborhood, but also solutions to the problems it might face. (As the “Your block gets better” section of the site describes itself: “Exchange ideas. Gain recognition. Solve problems. Make your block a better place.”)

And the new Everyblock includes features that encourage community and collective problem-solving. “Each user contribution to our site has a ‘thank’ button next to it that lets you give positive reinforcement to the original poster for sharing information,” Holovaty notes. “We’ve built a lightweight neighborhood honors reputation system that rewards people for making contributions, as determined by their neighbors’ thanks and a number of other factors. And we’ve added classic forum-like features such as user profile photos, bios and profile questions that give you ways to introduce yourself and get to know other people in your neighborhood.”

It’s early — the redesign has been live for less than a month — but it’s gotten some good responses so far. Last Thursday, over in Chicago, a Jefferson Park resident named Jeff Parker (awesome bio: “Long-time listener, first-time caller”) posted a question: “Is anybody interested in working with neighbors to bring a farmers’ market to the Jefferson Park area?” His query has so far elicited over 40 replies, almost all of them affirming interest in a farmer’s market and offering constructive commentary toward the goal of bringing one to Jefferson Park. Some of the comments extended themselves “offline,” too. (Alice: “Merril – I just sent you an email.”)

According to the thread, the group — which is to say, the collective of neighbors that seems to have coalesced, over the course of some discrete Internet comments, into a force for action — currently has plans to meet in person this coming Sunday to figure out a strategy. It could come to nothing…or it could result in a weekly or biweekly selection of fresh fruits and vegetables for the neighborhood. Either way, though, it’s a nice little counterargument to the whole “the Internet turns us into isolated pod people” line of logic. As is Everyblock’s discussion about an impending Wal-Mart. And its various invitations to community cleanups (or, as Everyblock Boston has dubbed them, “Sweep and Meets”).

Which is not to say that Everyblock’s original idea of nabe-level community data doesn’t still play a role in the site. Information itself can be a force for community engagement. A couple weeks ago, Holovaty himself — who, along with Martin, is an active user on Everyblock — posted a comment:

Just heard word from my wife that there’s some “major police/fire” action on Rockwell, south of Wilson, on the east side of the street. Anybody know what’s up?

Soon, Holovaty had his answer: There’d been a shooting, but not of the violent variety. A TV pilot had been filming in the area. So: “Filming a tv show,” one neighbor replied. Another provided a link to the PDF of the filming notice he’d been sent informing him and his immediate neighbors of the filming. Another shared that he’d seen a CBS-branded car carrier parked in a lot nearby. And another wrote simply to thank the others for their contributions. In all, five people actively contributed to the conversation. And among them, there were ten expressions of gratitude.

POSTED     April 11, 2011, 4 p.m.
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