From #NewWest to New West (Or: how Twitter inspired me to join my Residents’ Association)

New West Twitterati shared their thoughts about Residents' Associations in response to this week's New West Wednesday post on the topic.
New West Twitterati shared their thoughts about Residents’ Associations in response to this week’s New West Wednesday post on the topic.

Back in 2009, I wrote a guest post on Tenth to the Fraser entitled, “Taking the plunge into community involvement”. I’m hoping at the end of this post I can convince one of you to take the plunge.

It’s a topical subject, with Briana’s recent New West Wednesday’s topic asking about people’s involvement (or not) in their local residents’ associations. Commenters are discussing their experiences and I’d have to say mine’s been overwhelmingly positive, which certainly makes me a bit sad about moving away.

While I’d most recently been living in New Westminster since 2007, it was really in late 2008, and after I joined Twitter that the city started to really become a community to me. A lot of the local digerati were beginning to coalesce around the #NewWest hashtag (it’s been a battle between us and a hiphop sub-genre but I think we’re winning). Connecting with real neighbours through virtual communities prompted me to become more active in my neighbourhood.

I wasn’t really sure what went on but I thought I’d check out a local meeting of the New Westminster Downtown Residents’ Association. While just a renter, it was interesting to learn more about local issues, even if there wasn’t always a direct impact on my life. Some meetings drew bigger crowds than others, usually when people were quite passionate about topics such as the UBE or there was new info about civic projects, but there was always something to learn or be updated on.

One thing that always seemed important to the directors was how to get more people out and informed about where they lived. I made the observation that the group was collecting emails from people registering but not using them to communicate to residents, so they asked if I could help out.

Like many others, I never knew that a simple request would lead to a more formal commitment. I ended up serving as a director for the past two years and in addition to providing some meeting reminders and additional community announcements, I also started a Twitter account to live-tweet the meetings. Seeing the engagement, having people send in questions to remotely ask the speakers, and receiving thank yous from those who couldn’t make meetings, was really rewarding! (Full disclosure: I’m a big geek about information and communication technology and its impact on society.) While some people see local community building and politics as overly partisan, my experiences were lucky enough to simply be about giving something back. Even better, it helped me make friends in a lot of different parts of the community.

I’ve been able to meet various city staff and some of the councillors, business owners — both new and long term — and developers that have been reshaping the city skyline. I’ve met residents from other associations. I’ve had a chance to meet people involved in the Royal City Farmers Market Association. It seems like I knew more people at Shakespeare in the Queen’s Park and the Hyack Festival. I was meeting a lot of other folks passionate about building a strong sense of community, like those involved in N.E.X.T. New West. Attending (and volunteering) gave me a lot more pride in the happenings of the city and interest in the changes. There always seemed like a lot of conflicting ideas on what was best for New Westminster and a tension between the city’s historic past and its future but it has been great to meet so many people that care about their neighbourhood.

All these benefits and it only cost me $5 a year for a family membership and an evening every two months to attend the meetings. I was also able to take part in organizing and running two community block party BBQs that allowed hundreds of local residents to mingle with neighbours. (After last year’s tenth annual event, we decided to take a hiatus this year. It was becoming so successful, that we were outgrowing the group’s capacity to handle in that format. New ideas for next year’s event are welcome.) Unfortunately, it’ll be my last meeting coming up in a few weeks on May 25, 2011 (7pm at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parish Hall – 514 Carnarvon Street), as I’m headed out east for more school.

If you’ve always wanted to check out what goes on at residents’ associations, I’d really encourage you to come out. If it seems like something you’d like to get involved in, you could run for a spot as a director at the AGM in September and/or for any of the digitally savvy out there, the group could use a hand with sending out the occasion email and tweeting meetings. (If you’re not a downtown resident living between Royal and the River, check out the city’s website for your local association.)

It’s been a great time living in New Westminster, getting to know friends and neighbours and watching the city change and grow. (I’ll be glad to can keep up with the going ons in the city through Twitter and Tenth to the Fraser.) Thank you all for making it a wonderful experience!

New West Hyacks the Web

A Twitter search for #NewWest
A Twitter search for #NewWest

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.

Tweetup the ‘least awkward meeting of total strangers I’ve ever been to’

This is a guest post by Marcy Koopmans, who recently moved to New Westminster. This is her take on our most recent Tweetup.

As Jocelyn mentioned in her post on Friday, a large part of what gives New West its sense of self is its sense of history.

Moving here, Wes and I were surprised and, I’ll be honest, a bit amused by what to us seems such an unusual preoccupation with the past. But perhaps this is only because we came from a city which one Twitter user called a “cultural wasteland.” (You’ll get no argument from me on that front.)

That previous city was not one that I chose to live in myself, even though I managed to stay there for 19 years. New West represents home to me in a more real sense because I chose it, because Wes and I chose it together.

That said, even though it has taken very little time for me to feel at home in my new city, as of last Thursday I still hadn’t really met anyone. Twitter has been a great gateway in that regard. Through it, Wes and I found out about the existence of Tenth to the Fraser, the resurrection of the Farmer’s Market, and the Tweetup to follow.

The Farmer’s Market represents a way of life that I think will become increasingly important to our society and way of life in the coming years due to factors such as the recession and the state of the environment. Its continued success will show that we can come together as a community and both provide each other with the things we need — fruit, veggies, almond bark — and support each other economically. All with less impact on the environment that buying food shipped half way around the world.

The Tweetup, while overwhelming for me in the number of new faces and names to remember, was about the least awkward meet up of mostly total strangers that I’ve ever been to.

Perhaps the level of comfort in the gathering was fueled by orange drop martinis, beer and hummus, but I think it also speaks to what New West is as a city. It’s a city both small and big — one of those true clichés that came up during the Tweet up — and one that both loves the past and embraces the diversity that comes with moving forward and embracing progress.

It’s been a long time since I have found myself in a group of strangers where I can talk about the trials of public transportation, education and vampires without meeting blank stares. That, to me, is what is so invigorating and exciting about living in New West: it seems to have something for everyone.


Note: Thanks to everyone who attended the Tweetup, including:

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Blogging Basics – advice for starting a blog

Last night I presented a two-hour program at the New Westminster Public Library called Blogging Basics, to help people get started creating their own blogs. We had a great turnout, with 60 registered and only a few empty seats in the auditorium.  It was a very lively crowd, full of questions and comments – I barely made it through the presentation in those two hours!

Hopefully I was able to answer some questions and even inspire some folks to start blogging themselves! We also disussed using Twitter and Facebook to promote blogs. 

Here’s the presentation file, for anyone who’s interested:

And here’s a Twitter tip sheet I put together:

Thanks again for coming out everyone! Please let me know when you launch your blogs!

Twittering in New West

The mayor’s dream of citywide wifi notwithstanding, New Westminster is not a town that fetishizes digital culture. Until recently, we have not even had a visible local blogging presence (most local bloggers mark themselves as being in “Vancouver”). So you can imagine my surprise when four people in the small crowd at the recent Royal City Farmer’s Market AGM  told me they were on Twitter.  

Only about 1% of online Canadians are on Twitter, according to recent ComScore stats, but the service is growing incredibly quickly. According to Compete, Twitter grew an astonishing 752% in 2008, from about 500,000 visitors per month to 4.43 million by December. There’s something afoot.

Twitter is a funny little beastie. Think of it as a cross between instant messaging and a chatroom. Or, looking back a little farther, it’s like the old “party line” telephones, where everyone could eavesdrop on each other’s conversations.

  • When the party line is already in use, if any of the other subscribers to that line pick up the phone, they can hear and participate in the conversation. 
  • The completely non-private party lines were a cultural fixture of rural areas for many decades, and were frequently used as a source of entertainment and gossip, as well as a means of quickly alerting entire neighborhoods in case of emergencies such as fires.

Source: Wikipedia

There’s more. Messages are limited to 140 characters, the same as a text message

It sounds bizarre, I know, but try it and you’ll see: Twitter opens the door to serendipity.

Oddly enough, the constraints of the system help to inspire creativity. Some examples: Poets turn Tweets into art. Storytellers craft their tales in 140-character increments. Journalists use Twitter to find story leads and perform interviews. Companies and marketers are using it to respond to customer complaints. A non-profit raised $10,000 in 48 hours to build a classroom in Tanzania via Twitterthrough its “Tweetsgiving” campaign. Twitter was the best source of breaking news updates about the recent civic elections in B.C. The Red Cross and emergency planning departments are using it to keep people up to date on disaster response. And here in New West, neighbours are making friends via Tweetups (Twitter-coordinated meetups)

Just like the old telephone party lines, Twitter can help facilitate a sense of community:

  Though the lines lacked privacy, they helped build a sense of community. If several calls in succession to the same number sparked worries that something was wrong, others would pick up and listen in to find out whether there was anything they could do to help.

“It wasn’t really nosiness, it was neighborliness,” Helen Musselman of Hamilton County, Ind., told an oral history interviewer in the 1980s.

Now, she said, “it’s cold. . . . You don’t know what your next-door neighbor is doing.” 

Source: telephone history  

One rite of passage for new Twitterers is to learn the quirks of the system. Just like those old party lines that rang once for Joan and twice for Marjorie, on Twitter there are ways to let people know the “call” is for them:

  • @ = reply or attention (@duckbeaver indicates I’m either replying to something he said or that I think something I am saying will interest him)
  • # = keyword that indicates a tweet is part of a larger discussion (#motrinmoms, #NewWest, #flight1549)
  • RT or Retweet = forwarded message (convention is to include the original source, i.e. RT @source then write the message)
  • d = Direct Message (private between sender & recipient)
  • More than one symbol can be used at a time. Example tweet: josiejose @breebop RT @chronicbabe listening to “twitter for journalists” from columbia j school on blog talk radio

While Twitter itself is a fairly basic, stripped-down service, its application programming interface (API) allows third-party developers build applications that riff off  Twitter data or improve the Twitter experience.  Some useful tools in the latter category include:

  • Twhirl – desktop client that allows you to tweet from more than one account, can select to be notified with a pop-up every time someone you follow tweets or replies/direct messages you.
  • Twitterfeed – Input your RSS feed to automatically tweet your blog posts
  • Twitterbar – Firefox extension to post URLs to Twitter from your browser
  • Twitterific & Twinkle – iPhone apps (there are others, these are just two examples)
  • Brightkite – Location-based social network that syncs with Twitter (has an iPhone app & website)

Finally, some pointers on Twitter etiquette:

  • Use your real name and add a photo. Companies can tweet, but it’s better if they are represented by an individual.
  • To find followers, follow others. Reciprocation is not required, but it is encouraged.
  • It is possible to tweet too much. Don’t flood your followers’ Twitter streams.
  • If you retweet, identify the source with @sourcename in your message. It’s ok to truncate the original message if you need to.
  • If you’re a business, don’t try to “sell” via Twitter. Use it to show your personality, offer special Twitter-only deals, reveal the inside scoop or respond to customer feedback.

If you have any other questions about Twitter, or how to use it, please let us know in the comments. And, of course, feel free to follow us on Twitter @10thtothefraser. If you Tweet about New West, consider using the #NewWest hashtag to aggregate local information.

Some other local Twitterati:

There are more, of course. If I have forgotten you, I apologize. Please leave a comment with your Twitter ID if you’d like to be added to the New Westminster Twitterati list 🙂 

And, once again, Saturday January 23, there is a New Westminster Tweetup for bloggers and Twitterers at 3pm at the Heritage Grill. Come on by and say hello.

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Speaking at blogging conference Feb. 21

I am delighted to announce that I [Briana] will be speaking at Northern Voice (the blogging conference in Vancouver) on the topic of hyperlocal blogging. The title of my presentation is Passionately Local: Blogging about your own backyard.

Here’s the synopsis of the talk:

Blogging may be an opportunity to reach a worldwide audience, but with Tenth To the Fraser, we’ve narrowed our focus considerably to cover only issues and ideas that relate to the city of New Westminster. 

In this talk I’ll share the benefits of hyperlocal focus to both blog authors and the community, how to make hyperlocal coverage interesting, the role of placeblogs in the media ecosystem, and how to use Twitter, Facebook and other tools to connect with other locals and grow your audience. 

The conference is Saturday, Feb. 21, 9am-5pm. My bit is scheduled for 11:30am. The conference is, unfortunately, sold out again, but if there is enough interest I’d be happy to arrange another presentation here in New West. If any of you are going, please come up and say hi. I’d love to meet you in person! 

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