For most of the time that a neighborhood has stood, whether in New Mexico or New York, the best way to learn about it was to physically explore it. And while my friends in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the North Valley of Albuquerque (the latter of which I lived in for a too-brief summer) can give me phone accounts or send me photos to keep me up to date on the latest happenings, the internet has opened up far more opportunities for learning about neighborhoods from afar.
E-mail listservs are now a staple of active neighborhoods, for residents to announce upcoming holiday events, proposed developments in their vicinity, or that their mail was just stolen. I am a member of two listservs, for my current and last neighborhoods, and have been surprised at the amount I learned from sitting in front of my computer and not walking the streets. While I was initially surprised how forthcoming some residents are to share information on the listserv, it goes hand-in-hand that a vital part of the neighborhood is the interaction that occurs in that medium, in addition to talking over the back fence. (Still, I wouldn't post my vacation plans there; robbers use e-mail too.)
As an extreme example of neighborhood identity broadcast online, consider recent goings-on in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A local listserv, Park Slope Parents (PSP), lit up in March 2006 when a resident posted that she had found "a boy's hat" (blue color being one of its identifying characteristics) left behind. Another poster immediately responded that assuming the hat belonged to a boy was problematic, other members posted their distate of "PC view[s] of life," and the thread eventually attracted over 100 comments exploring sexism, pointing fingers (and later apologizing), and mocking the situation. I doubt that Park Slopers are really walking around their neighborhood and shouting down patriarchy (whether actual or perceived), but that is certainly the picture painted to any PSP subscriber. You can also read the entire thread here.
I'm more interested, though, in the collaborative possibilities exemplified by Gothamist, a New York city blog, and Gothamist LLC's growing roll of websites focusing on other cities, from Los Angeles to Austin to Shanghai and beyond. (I also really like the graphics they use to represent each city.) The editors encourage e-mail submissions from any city resident with notable content to share, and you can also tag your Flickr photos with "Gothamist" (or "DCist" or "Londonist," etc.) to form a great slideshow of that respective city. I pasted below two photos from yesterday's steam pipe explosion in midtown Manhattan, which were easily findable due to their Gothamist tags. What tool but the social web could have provided me with the quality and quantity of these photos, almost instantaneously?
With my thanks to Flickr user arvindgrover for the great shots.