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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  • Tyler Cowen often remarks there is a literature on everything. And so of course there is a large literature on public trust, norms, social cooperation. With many striving to find ways to improve these,
    score communities and nations on social trust, etc, etc. Max Roser for example has good visulizations on this here

    You post implies that secret ratings, done by a secret society, would somehow be superior to, or at least be a useful additional to, that body of work. Why? Why would something done in secret be better, or at least on the margin be a greater gain than the straightforward approach of adding to what is already being done? Likely you have a reason, but your post would be improved if you spelled that out more clearly. Tenatively I think your arguement is just the draw of a secret society is a big lure, so may pull in more talented folks into this field with a new approach. Is that it? Or more to it?

    • There is indeed a literature, but it doesn’t tell you how to see at a micro scale which local communities are healthy.

      If my proposal were implemented and worked, you could predict local social outcomes from their ratings after you had controlled for the other usual visible parameters.

    • arch1

      It seems plausible that such a program which managed to *stay* secret could be effective in ways that an open one could not. The risks significant though, as “effective” cuts both ways and secrecy invites abuse.

      Perhaps Robin is thinking that secretive such efforts are going to happen regardless, and he’s hoping to give the well-intentioned subset of those a leg up.

  • Jim Drogan

    It’s not immediately clear to me why I should trust a health assessment by a secret someone.

  • In my youth, I was skeptical of things I could not see.

    But you believed in God! (Or was that an earlier phase of youth?)

  • Thomas Wilson

    sounds insidious as all heck

  • dat_bro06

    There are platforms that do this or some variant of it to some extent or for the purposes of specific (visible) use cases like NextDoor, Yelp, Apartment Ratings, Zillow, Great Schools, or sites that provide data on crime incidence. If these tools and data sets were aggregated/ interpreted with machine learning, they could paint an interesting view of a community’s social health.

    Mapping the (invisible) signals of health, you run into subjectivity, and/or difficulty of measurement. For instance the signal of ‘neighbors dropping by to say hello’ may signal health to one person, intrusiveness to another. Littering is a very conspicuous negative behavior in a community, but how would a secret society member calibrate the volume of litter in one place versus another. Standards could be established (along the lines of a mystery shopping model), but how would data collection be financed? Crowdsource or expert-source the data, sell memberships? Maybe (ala Angie’s List, Zagat). An affiliate model (sending a user of the data to relevant products and services) would inevitably lead to violations of conflicts of interests (i.e., local chamber of commerce advertises in exchange for higher scores).

    Cool idea, just spit-balling here.

  • Sam Dangremond

    There’s no way a casual traveller could accurately asses this.

    Example: having moved to a new state two years ago, I am just now learning enough about my local social community to play a part in it.

    • The society would need to decide how long a stay was needed, and require stays of that length for valid ratings.

  • jhertzli

    What if a community tries gaming the ratings by making other places worse?

  • Don Reba

    A subgroup could hijack the system to impose its ideals of how communities should look. Sort of like Russian Wikipedia.

  • free_agent

    Dunno… If one really wishes to improve the social health of communities, the most effective way would be to spend effort on improving the social health of *their* community. But the well-educated, mostly-well-paid, semi-academic pointy head types that tend to be readers of thoughtful blogs like this (and I definitely include myself here) tend not to put in time on local politics, local religious organizations, local charities, et al. We’re citizens of the world, but not citizens of our towns.

    • I agree this is a deserving related activity to consider.