A little less than two years ago, I went looking for an online community of New Westminsterites online. The virtual version of New West was a pretty lonely place back then. I found a few bloggers. A few more on Twitter. A handful of Facebook groups.
I was thinking of launching a blog about life in New West, but when I saw how little local activity there was, I wondered whether anyone would even read it. Then I found an active local photography group on Flickr, which was encouraging. Will and I decided to go ahead with the blog, just for the fun of it.
We created the first incarnation of Tenth to the Fraser on Blogger, where it’s easy (and free) to start a blog – and even easier to abandon it if you lose interest. But the more we wrote, the more fun we had and the better connected we felt to our community. We started making new friends, shopping at more local businesses, and taking more time to learn about local issues. We started to see New West in a different way. As we slowly started to meet more people online and we got involved in more civic events, we became not just residents but active agents in a changing community. We became empowered.
I created alerts for Twitter and Google for New West, and I reached out to bloggers and Twitter folk who wrote about our city. A few of them ignored me. But a lot of them became readers and some even became contributors to our blog. I learned that I had been mistaken. It wasn’t that New Westminster didn’t have many people online. It was that the people who were online didn’t identify themselves as being part of our community. The more that people Tweeted and blogged about New West, the more people started owning up to living here.
We wrote a lot about New West, and gradually we saw other people do the same. We started using the #NewWest hashtag on Twitter, and then our friends did too. Then their friends did, and their friends. Now the local newspapers do too.
There is a perception that blogging is passive. But through the last couple of years I’ve seen how it can be used to inspire change. Cheekily, we said the goal of Tenth to the Fraser was to “Hyack the Web.” By that, we meant to chivvy New West to hurry up and become a more digital city. What we didn’t foresee was the offline change.
Today, there is not only a parallel digital community in New Westminster that lives on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, but also new offline friendships and activities that would likely never have existed were it not for #NewWest.
A few examples:
– @duckbeaver and @weskoop were inspired to become part of their resident’s association, and have live-tweeted council meetings. Both have also volunteered their skills to benefit local organizations.
– @jenarbo changed her mind about moving to Vancouver Island and instead bought a house in New West. She also became the market manager for the Royal City Farmers Market – a job she likely wouldn’t have even known to apply for if she didn’t write a blog (and through it become a TF contributor, then friend).
– If I had never started Tenth to the Fraser, I would never have called together the committee that organized Summerfest in Grimston Park.
#NewWest is bigger than one blog, of course. We got the ball rolling, inspiring more people to represent themselves as New Westminster aficionados online. In the chain of events that followed, there were a bunch of cool things that happened because of what we did. But it’s even cooler that people no longer have to find Tenth to the Fraser to find #NewWest.
Today #NewWest is a vastly different place than two years ago. One big change is that there is now an institutional presence in social media.
– City Hall and both local newspapers are active on Facebook (The Record) and Twitter (The Record & The Newsleader). Two councillors are tweeting (Jon Cote & Betty McIntosh), several comment on local blogs and Facebook pages, and many more at City Hall keep tabs on what #NewWest voices have to say about New Westminster.
– A number of local reporters are starting to use #NewWest for story leads.
– Local businesses and organizations like the BIA are also experimenting with using social media to connect with their customers.
Best of all, if the last two years are any indication, #NewWest’s online community-building chatter will inspire more people to get involved offline.