Community Watchers

In my youth, I was skeptical of things I could not see. Like community social health. Not just physical health, but social health, and not just of individuals, but of communities. But now that I am older and can see more, I am convinced: communities exist, and matter. Not just very visible things like jobs, parks, houses, and stores. But harder to see coalitions, cultures, and norms that influence how people feel about and treat each other.

In some places people more often see when someone is hurting, and try to help. Or stop predators on the prowl. Or see other big changes for mutual gain, and coordinate to achieve them. In other places, these happen less. This sort of community health varies not just from city to city, or firm to firm, but from block to block, and from one cubicle row to cubicle row.

If you live in a place for a while, and you are mature enough to see the local social fabric, then you may see your local social health. And while you might want government to help with this, distant government officials managed by and via formal rules can’t do much. Sincere competent local community activists can do more. But while some can choose to become these, it can be hard for others to tell who they are, to support them. What else can we do?

Many people like to travel, and wish somehow to combine travel with doing good. Many also like the idea of secret societies, especially ones devoted to noble causes. I see an opening here for a secret society of travelers devoted to improving community social health.

The idea is simple: a secret society evaluates the local health of communities they visit, and combines these ratings into a public map. If this map came to be seen as reliable, it could shame poor communities into doing more to improve their health. With residents preferring to move to better communities, land owners would gain stronger incentives to promote improvements.

This would not be easy. Society members must be socially perceptive, stay long enough at each place to evaluate well, overcome temptations to push various other agendas and biases in their evaluations, and avoid detection. And they must find ways to collect new similarly virtuous members, even after their society becomes prestigious. This is a tall order.

But the payoff could be huge: healthier communities. If you try to create this, my only advice is: first collect a big enough map in secret and then test it in many ways for accuracy before going public. It isn’t enough that you hope you will be able to do this; wait until you have actually done it.

From a July 14 conversation with Pete Bertine and Andrew Lockhart.

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