Streetlife describes itself as a ‘British social network for local communities’ with the aim of helping people ‘make the most of where they live by connecting with their neighbours and sharing practical information, advice and resources’ (Streetlife.com). New users sign up to the website using their postcode and email address and are automatically connected with others in their local area. Users are kept informed of discussions happening in their area and able to post messages, events, polls and pictures to which other local residents can respond. Streetlife likens itself to ‘chatting with a neighbour over the garden fence, pinning posters on lampposts, speaking in the town square or putting cards up in the newsagents’ windows but with the benefit of being accessible wherever you are, and at times to suit your routine’ (Streetlife.com). The site emphasises how, for example, a jogging club, library or neighbourhood watch group could engage with new people in the area. Our interviewee described how local authorities use the site to conduct consultations and share information about new developments in their area such as flood warnings, opening of a library or new recycling rules. Streetlife also emphasises the opportunity for local businesses to connect with customers by responding instantly to requests for help and advice.
There is no specific target audience as users come from a wide range of age, gender, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, however Streetlife staff noted that users tend to be settled and embedded in their local neighbourhood and interested in local issues, such as professionals, families and retirees. The initiative is area-based given its focus on strengthening connections and networks within local communities and it was described during our interview as being between the early and advanced stages in terms of its progress. The website was first piloted in Battersea, South West London and is now available across the UK with a clustering of activity in London and the South East. According to Streetlife.com over 250,000 people in over 2,000 communities across Britain are using the site to ‘discuss local news, crime, planning proposals and public services; find locals with common interests; organise and attend social groups and events; share skills and belongings with neighbours; recommend and discover local businesses and tradespeople; and promote, campaign and volunteer for community projects and local causes’ (Streetlife.com). It is run by 11 members of staff and structured as a privately funded company which is free for local residents, charities and non-profit organisations to use. At present it is driven primarily by private investment with our interviewee explaining the ultimate goal being to be self-sustainable by generating revenue from local businesses paying to have “commercial conversations” with local communities, this is already happening in areas with more established Streetlife communities.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Our Streetlife interviewee emphasised that “a lot of what makes [Streetlife] work is the diversity of use”, explaining that in his view the widest possible range of users with the largest possible range of experiences offered the site the most effective and comprehensive forms of mutual support and exchange. As he put it, “having the diversity of people and targeting communities where you know you are looking at a lot of different people [makes] sure that everyone gets value from it, rather than just having the same people talking about the same things…”. The impression offered by the interviewee was that Streetlife is “…great for people who are, or feel, excluded from mainstream society in some way” since the focus is on bringing people together who have a common interest in a local area and that, as a result of the relative anonymity of site users, preconceived ideas users may have had about one another based on appearance or background are counteracted and new forms of interaction made possible. Although it does not request or hold detailed data (e.g. age, gender, ethnic origin, socio-economic status etc.) which would evidence the diversity of its users, Streetlife has conducted research using Acorn categories based on the postcodes of its members which it says indicate that it broadly mirrors the demographics of the local areas in which it operates (from wealthy areas like Kensington in West London as well as more deprived areas such as Barking and Dagenham in East London). Anecdotal evidence suggests Streetlife is used in different ways across very different localities, e.g. transactional form in affluent areas and more conversational in others.
Main factors influencing success or failure
Given the focus on strengthening community spirit via online social networking one of the obvious factors affecting its success is that conversations actually take place. In order for this to happen it is crucial that the site have a critical mass of active users concentrated within a locality. Our interviewee pointed out that “the site is only as useful as the people who use it” and it is reliant on enough people joining in the same place, at the same time. Although it is already available to prospective users across the UK, staff at Streetlife marketing the site tend to focus their efforts on areas where usage is growing naturally (typically those neighbouring active Streetlife communities) by pushing direct and online marketing and liaising with local authorities in order to increase numbers. The Streetlife representative we spoke to described the site as “almost the opposite of Facebook… as on Streetlife you don’t know the people but you live near them, whereas Facebook is all about people you already know who could be all over the world”, thus connecting people who don’t already know each other is one of the biggest challenges facing Streetlife as it attempts to grow.
Maintaining active conversations and online communities is also argued to be impacted heavily by the sense of empowerment felt by users to affect change in their communities. Our interviewee emphasised the importance of the user-led and locally focused nature of topics, activities and campaigns in ensuring users felt a strong sense of ownership and were confident that once public opinion had been mobilised it would be possible to establish a plan and take action. During our interview many examples were given of local authorities and Members of Parliament using the site to communicate directly with users on a resident-to-resident basis, sharing information, seeking to dispel rumours and take-up local issues in direct response to concerns voiced on Streetlife.com. Our interviewee felt that the more the user feels that they can go beyond discussion and actually fulfil a community need (such as saving a local pub) or tackle a perceived social problem (such as potholes or litter) the more empowering and positive their experience of the site. Streetlife.com features numerous positive reviews from users to support its impact on social cohesion such as ‘Eleanor B.’ who states:
“Cities can be anonymous and lonely, but they’re made up of communities of people who all share in common the place they live; imagine what other interests you might share. I set up a book club on Streetlife that meets monthly and it’s been fantastic getting to know people who live nearby.”
Finally, the structure of the site as a purely private initiative working towards a ‘social good’ while simultaneously aiming to be a profit making business is also a contributing factor towards its success as it is not reliant on already scarce and ultimately finite state or charitable funding, thus making the initiative more financially sustainable and challenging traditional approaches to funding community projects.
Streetlife emphasises the galvanising force that local (often small scale) issues have in encouraging people to communicate with their neighbours, mobilise around local issues and to demonstrate a willingness to seek local solutions. It emphasises the significance of the common bonds that people share around social interests and concerns and highlights the way that online social networking based around locality can overcome perceived barriers to interaction and generate new forms of neighbourliness and understanding.
 Users can customise their account to control the amount of information they receive, the type of information they are interested in and the information that they share about themselves.
 ‘Acorn is a powerful consumer classification that segments the UK population. By analysing demographic data, social factors, population and consumer behaviour, it provides precise information and an understanding of different types of people’ (http://acorn.caci.co.uk/).