An Online Tool Encourages Offline Connections

Many of us spend a good portion of our lives tethered to devices–smart phones, computers and tablets–that have gotten in the way of making real world connections with our communities. But all is not lost, especially if OurCommonPlace has its way.

OurCommonPlace is an Web-based bulletin board created to enable community members to connect online in a way that encourages them to continue those connections offline. Users can post classified-type ads, event information or discuss community matters.

The idea was conceived a few years ago by Pete Davis and Max Novendstern when they were Harvard undergrads. The company, which operates out of the Innovation Lab at Harvard, has since expanded to include Ricky Porco, who lives in Somerville and acts as a community organizer for OurCommonPlace.

“There’s been a dramatic decline in community in general and a rise in information technology over the same time,” Porco said. The founders of OurCommonPlace were inspired by Harvard Professor and author of Bowling Alone Robert Putnam “to use these tools to reverse the bridge that has been built.”

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OurCommonPlace isn’t unique to Somerville, it’s currently available in several other cities throughout the U.S., but Somerville is the largest community that the company has ventured into so far. When OurCommonPlace opened up in Somerville a few months ago, some in the city met it with skepticism, but Porco is quick to dispel any suspicions.

“We’re not big brother in your neighborhood,” Porco said. “We try to balance not being local and showing people that [OurCommonPlace] is useful.”

While OurCommonPlace may not have residents in all of the cities it’s currently targeting, Porco is a Somerville resident, as is one of OurCommonPlace’s founders, Max┬áNovendstern.

The website is completely free and there is no advertising, which means OurCommonPlace isn’t a profitable venture yet. But to those who work there, that’s not the point. Their goal is to get communities back to a time when neighbors borrowed a cup of sugar from each other (though in Somerville that may look more like borrowing some local carrots from the farmers market).

“We want to make a product that works,” Porco said, adding that OurCommonPlace has just released a website redesign. “Technology is pulling people away from each other. But people are using OurCommonPlace to have face-to-face interactions. They’re using their real names and these are real people. They meet each other and they have an interaction. Can we bring two people together? That’s the start of the relationship.”

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