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Blogs: Hurricane Katrina and community: people versus technology

When reading an article entitled Five years after Hurricane Katrina, how New Orleans saved its soul I noticed some fascinating comments which made me think of our work building online communities, and specifically - people versus technology.

Children playing in a neighbourhood street, New Orleans - Photo taken from The Big Picture photo blogDan Baum’s article describes a post-Katrina New Orleans where the city’s real estate records had all been destroyed, and where property developers were poised and ready to completely wipe away “certain neighborhoods” in favour of a newer, shinier, better New Orleans.

But the people of New Orleans didn’t want this. And not only that – but they succeeded in halting these plans which would ultimately destroy their culture.

Have a look at these quotes from the article:

What worried them was not the loss of deeds or titles, but the prospect of losing their culture, and with it, the city's soul.

In church basements and coffee shops, New Orleanians met over and over, plotting to fend off plans that clashed with their neighborhoods' identities and their city's sense of self. At one gathering in a stifling church on St. Claude Avenue, I recall a woman with tears in her eyes addressing the congregation. "People like to talk about 'hard facts,' " she said, "but they don't consider social networks. We have a huge population of single mothers, a huge population of elderly. These new buildings mean absolutely nothing to us. The social networks mean everything.

I still can't explain exactly how they did it, but the exhausted people in that room -- and people like them all over the city -- drove the barbarians from the gate. Some combination of meetings and marches; T-shirts, fliers and spray-paint on sodden houses ("I'm not leaving for any $$$!"); and occasional hollering at council members and planning commissioners got the message across. The people of New Orleans weren't going to play along. The big plans quietly faded, the blueprints were rolled up and stashed away, and the city grew back organically, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, the way its people wanted.

These comments make me think a lot about being distracted by flashy technology, widgets and trendy pieces of functionality, and how they are all really unnecessary when you’re building a community of real people, with real lives and ideas and feelings and needs. Our role in community-building is to listen and respond, not to impose on people a complex system of features which they don’t want or need, and which distracts from the conversation. Later, when the members of your community ask you for a piece of technology which helps them grow and engage as a culture, they’ll thank you for listening.

Keep the technology simple and focus on the real, human connections which are being formed. Connect your members together, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the way people want.


Image credit: Remembering Katrina, five years ago via The Big Picture


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